In the famous 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most well-known defense of civil disobedience. King wrote the letter in response to a statement published by a group of white Alabama clergymen, "A Call for Unity," which expressed some sympathy for those who were demonstrating against segregation but criticized their methods of protesting. This sort of critique has never stopped being aimed at activists and remains common today — so Martin Luther King Day seems an appropriate occasion to revisit the powerful words King wrote on the subject in jail.
In the letter, King uses the term "direct action" to describe the sit-ins, marches, and various demonstrations he and others were engaging in to draw attention to racial injustice. The King Center defines direct action as "the strategic use of nonviolent tactics and methods to bring an opponent or oppressive party into dialogue to resolve an unjust situation. It is used as a moral force to illustrate, document and counter injustices."
It's a method that continues to be used today by Black Lives Matter activists and others who protest the United States' persistent institutional racism.
Here are some passages from King's letter that parse out direct action and why it's such an effective activist method.
"I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
Whether it's the fact that the disenfranchisement of black voters in many places around the country helped lead to Trump's victory or the fact that the national prison-industrial complex is fueled by a diffused structure of local policing, surveillance, and profiling, this quote is as relevant as ever.
"You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. ... It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative."
The 2014 death of unarmed young black man Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer sparked huge protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Some of the demonstrations turned into arson and vandalism, causing onlookers across the country to call them "riots" — a loaded term that's often used to delegitimize protests — and endlessly disparage those who were engaging in violence as opposed to focusing on the reasons for the unrest.
Many have since argued that these protests in Ferguson forced the United States to address the issue of police brutality and brought about real change.
"Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth."
Beyoncé made waves with her 2016 halftime show to the song "Formation," which referenced Hurricane Katrina, the Black Panthers, and the Black Power Movement. She received criticism for choosing the Super Bowl as a platform to promote that message, which was called divisive.
"This is football, not Hollywood," former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said after. "You’re talking to middle America when you have the Super Bowl, so if you have entertainment, let’s have decent, wholesome entertainment."
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation."
Colin Kaepernick was slammed by many for not protesting in the "right" way. Shaquille O’Neal said that there are "other ways to get your point across," and Tomi Lahren claimed that Kaepernick "went about it the wrong way."
"We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. ... Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' ... There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair."
Patience is still constantly demanded of activists. They're told to wait for change, as opposed to fight for justice with methods that the privileged find unpalatable.
Big ideas for radical change are often rejected for the same reason; in 2009, Rush Limbaugh condemned the idea of reparations for the historical injustices imposed on black people by saying, "It just can’t happen overnight. Be patient."
"Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest."
Hundreds and hundreds of Black Lives Matter protestors have been arrested for peacefully demonstrating in the last few years.
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
"Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself."
We see this in the constant ebb and flow of social movements and the fact that we're in something of an activist boom these days. Who can forget all-too-recent cries that racism was over in America, or the same for sexism — but movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have recently brought crucial, previously-ignored causes into the national and mainstream conversation. People can only hold their tongue for so long.
"The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
In recent years, Black Lives Matter activists have often been called extremists as though it's an insult. In 2016, for example, The National Review called them "radicals" who "take extreme positions, retreat to moderation to bolster credibility, then go right back to the extreme when the pressure eases."
"Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop."
Enslaved black labor helped make the United States into the superpower that it is today. Michelle Obama memorably spoke about this during her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, saying, "That is the story of this country ... I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn."
"I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes."
The South is currently filled with landmarks depicting Confederate soldiers. White nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August to protest the planned removal of a monument of Robert E. Lee; they attacked many counter-protestors and even killed one woman by running her over in a car. While that statue is being merely relocated now, many other Confederate monuments are being taken down over the country. But we have a long way to go before the South totally stops lionizing racist separatists and instead, in the words of King, "recognize[s] its real heroes."