The way in which White America remembers the story of the Civil Rights Movement and recalls the words and actions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are left with a kind of figure whose words ring out across the nation empty of their power. Take a moment. Pause. Now ask yourself: outside of the “I have a dream” speech, what did King say and do? If you can barely answer the question, you probably need to spend more time engaging the life of Dr. King.
Dr. King was a radical Black man from Georgia with an unwavering moral conviction to practice nonviolent protest. He cast a vision to America that Black Americans who suffered under the terror of White supremacy could gain equality and justice by peacefully disrupting business as usual on the White American agenda.
He understood that the only way for the United States of America to make any progress when it came to the conditions of Black people and the poor would require a militant nonviolence. To accomplish the seemingly unattainable—civil and voting rights for Black people in an age of Jim Crow—the people of the United States of America would have to believe that we could be better and then subsequently do better.
People protesting during the Civil Rights Movement faced police brutality with courage. When the police sent dogs, sprayed fire hoses, and made mass arrests, protesters faced state terror with a kind of “militant non-violence,” with songs and an unwavering resolve to expect justice. Their protests were righteous at the core. They remained deeply committed to justice and freedom—freedoms that were being denied because of their black skin.
When George Perry Floyd was “lynched” by the Minneapolis Police Department, people across the world took to the streets to nonviolently protest in their cities. It finally became clear to many outside of the Black community that there exists high levels of anti-Blackness sustained in this country.
With the power of nonviolent protest, we will not back down from our belief that justice looks like building equity in the criminal justice system, economic stability in the Black community, affordable and accessible housing, and improved health care. In the face of a government that would rather invest in property over people, we will sing an unwavering song of justice rooted in the “dangerous unselfishness” of community building and mutual aid.
We must understand that it is going to take all of us to believe that we can be and do better. If we want to dismantle the systemic racism that persists, we must make a commitment to ourselves and to our communities that we will reclaim the responsibility of peacefully disrupting business as usual.
When we figure out how to practice radical love and use it to protest the ways in which injustices keep people marginalized, we will begin to understand the words and work of Dr. King. Then and only then will his words ring with the fullness of their power.
Jeanelle Austin is an activist who has been involved with the establishment of what has come to be known as George Floyd Square.