This holiday weekend overflows with irony. When I think of any march on Washington, the image that immediately comes to mind is that of Martin Luther King Jr., arguably America’s greatest leader of non-violent social change, at the base of the Lincoln Memorial.
Contrast that with the images of the more than 25,000 soldiers who currently occupy our capital as a direct result of what former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund described as a “violent attack … unlike any I have experienced in my 30 years in law enforcement here in Washington, D.C.”
This irony creates many more questions than answers: How did a protest that was supposed to dispute an election get corrupted with guns, multiple Confederate flags, and racists and anti-Semitic slogans? The lack of a meaningful outcry from the protestors and their supporters that these elements did not represent their ideals left many to believe the protestors were in support of the vandalism, hatred and anti-American symbols and sentiments. It’s really illuminating that these were some of the very issues that King fought against.
How can we make sense of a nation that suddenly needs 25,000 troops in its capital just to safeguard the peaceful transition of power from one president to the next?
Is there really an equivalency between the protest in Washington, D.C. this summer following the deaths Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and the protest on January 6th? Did law enforcement treat these entities as equivalent?
And how on earth do we make sense of this at a time when we are supposed to be reflecting and taking meaningful action toward nonviolent social advancement?
I have found inspiration in the teachings of Dr. King himself, particularly from his Letter From Birmingham City Jail. He wrote it in 1963 as he sat in solitary confinement, having been arrested for peacefully protesting the oppressive segregation of Bull Connor’s Birmingham.
He is described as having felt despair and panic in his isolation. It is evident that many Americans share this sentiment today whether they are protesting police brutality or the election results.
During King’s incarceration, a sympathetic guard smuggled him a newspaper, which contained a scathing open letter to him from eight local clergy, who condemned him as an “extremist,” and his protests as “unwise and untimely.”
Out of his despair, he regained resolve and penned his now-immortal response. Three points in particular resonate with me on this weekend, and I invite you to reflect on them, as well:
Reject violence, no matter what.
In his letter, he described how he and his fellow protestors had to steel themselves for the violence they knew their peaceful protests would draw out. He would tell them: “We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself."
King goes further to remind us that, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” These statements were lessons for his followers at that time but are equally true in this moment.
Progress toward social justice is not automatic.
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability,” Dr. King wrote from his jail cell. It takes constant work and the effective use of time. “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. … Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
As we prepare to inaugurate a new president, we have reached a moment of sobering national reckoning about who we have been, who we are, and therefore, in time, who we might become. Just as we were told after each mass shooting over the last decade that “now is not the time” to address the root causes of gun violence in America, Dr. King was chided that his social movement was “untimely.” Waiting was always the advice he would receive, and thankfully reject.
We were not ready for the events of January 6. We as a nation will never be ready, or be comfortable, with the gut-wrenching truths that these events and the social justice events of 2020 now demand that we examine. It is time to stop waiting until we are “ready,” because such a comfortable moment will never present itself.
We are all extremists.
Dr. King initially bristled at being called out as an “extremist.” Then he thought more deeply about it and concluded that anyone who believes wholly in their cause will be characterized as an extremist. And so, he embraced his mantle as an extremist for love, justice, and equality.
“So, the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be,” he wrote. “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
So, Patriots, in keeping with this holiday as a day “on” and not a day “off,” here is a homework assignment for all of us: How can we be extremists for love and the extension of justice? Because today is ripe to do right.