We celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr every year but in the midst of our political, economic, and social climate, it is important to fully understand and carry on Dr. King’s message effectively to connect to the suffering of others and resist the forces that created that suffering. Many of us may think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, as the peacekeeper, the person who spoke during his “I Have a Dream” of little Black and white boys and girls coming together holding hands.
The focus of my comments today will be on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the strategist, the radical, and the systems thinker who mobilized the civil rights movement. We honor him by truly understanding and further exploring what he stood for and ways in which we can put into action his philosophy in the context of today’s political, economic, and social climate. Dr. King was a strategist who articulated a systematic political strategy that emerged from and connected with the on-the-ground social movement. Dr. King was a radical because, through his Poor People’s Campaign, he sought to reorder our national priorities from funding war, tax cuts, and bailouts for the rich to insuring every person the opportunity for a good education, health care as a human right, a decent job, and a viable income. He was a systems thinker strongly criticizing America’s capitalism, calling for a radical redistribution of wealth and guaranteed basic income.
For me, this is a personal journey and reflection on how we, as a society, can continue to make a transformational impact on their day and beyond. It was at the young age of 26, that Dr. King was first called to lead the Montgomery Bus boycott. Based on historical research and testimonies, at first, he was hesitant to accept the charge. He heard his inner voice calling out his name. "Martin Luthor, stand up for truth, stand up for justice, and stand up for justice". Being a man of character, he couldn't say no. In his own words, he said, “I'm trying to do what is right, I'm losing my courage, but I'm trying to do what is right".
We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, today, not only as a great orator but as a great disrupter. His 6-steps strategy of nonviolent social change is relevant to how he disrupted the political state of Birmingham in 1963 by challenging Commissioner Bull Conner and city business leaders. Through economic boycotts, he successfully negotiated the integration of facilities and jobs.
Remember, the work of the Civil Rights Leaders in the 60s required early mornings and late nights. We can’t afford to sleep on the need to deliver Dr. King’s message, so let’s get to work! I challenge us to this Call to Action to implement some of Dr. King’s strategic steps towards racial and social justice.
1. Information Gathering: To understand and articulate an issue, problem, or injustice facing a person, community, or institution you must do research. You must investigate and gather all vital information from all sides of the argument. Increase your understanding of the problem. Become an expert on your opponent’s position.
2. Education: It is essential to inform others, including your opposition, about your issue. This minimizes misunderstandings and gains you support and sympathy.
3. Personal Commitment: Daily check and affirm your faith in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. Eliminate hidden motives and prepare yourself to accept suffering, if necessary, in your work for justice.
4. Discussion/Negotiation: Using grace, humor, and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.
5. Direct Action: These are actions taken when the opponent is unwilling to enter into, or remain in, discussion/negotiation. These actions impose a “creative tension” into the conflict, supplying moral pressure on your opponent to work with you in resolving the injustice.
6. Reconciliation: Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action. Each act of reconciliation is one step close to the ‘Beloved Community.’
Dr. King once said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is: 'What are you doing for others?” As a strategist, Martin Luther King, Jr, and his organizers provide a framework to build upon and act on the things happening around us. Through an organized boycott against Sealtest Dairy, A&P, and other companies as a part of Cleveland’s "Operation Breadbasket", the black community used collective action to withdraw their purchasing power from these establishments. The opportunity? These establishments were benefitting from the purchasing power of the black residents but were not employing them, or investing in their communities, banks, or schools. The end result? The boycott influenced the institutions to enter into new contracts with the leaders of the community.
Dr. King and his army of strategists knew that by citizens, like us, not laying down and allowing the same government officials and citizens that turn a blind eye over and over again to the degrading tactics that were forced down the throats of indigenous Americans, of mentally-ill, of poor white Americans, and of black Americans are inconsistent with and went directly against the constitutional rights given to all of us in this nation. Dr. King’s message was more than people coming together and getting along. Dr. King emphasized that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Dr. King stated to the people of his time, “Let us not be satisfied”. He spoke of how change cannot happen and be significant without the majority and minority collaborating to not condone any action or language that targets, denigrate, threaten or harm another person or group. Dr. King spoke of a society (the “Beloved community”) that brings together everyone’s gifts, talents, and cultural experiences.
So, you ask, what more can I do? Glad you asked!
If you are a parent or an educator, I ask that you teach your students one new name each month from the heroes of black history, of Native American history, of LatinX history, LGBTQ history, of women’s history, and of future history for the possibilities that lay ahead of us.
If you are a therapist or clinician, enter your client’s racial world. Actively seek to look thru their lens, gain knowledge of and be responsive to their daily experiences of racism and related stress.
If you are a consumer, use your purchasing power to buy products or services, once a month, from women entrepreneurs, from veteran and LGBTQ-owned businesses, from Black and LatinX owned businesses, and from all diverse businesses.
If you are a millennial and Gen Z+, continue to be radical and make us old-timers accountable for the nonsense that we have created!