“When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.” —Alabama clergymen’s letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. April 12, 1963
“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.” —From Letter From a Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King Jr., April 16, 1963
I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site for the first time two weekends ago while in Atlanta for a wedding. I sat in the pews of the original Ebenezer Baptist Church listening to recordings of King speaking on racial and economic injustice, words just as applicable to the present moment as they were 50 years ago.
I walked along the reflecting pool—a mausoleum surrounded by the kind of poverty and urban blight King was fighting to end at the time of his assassination in 1968—and watched people toss coins into the water and pose for photos in front of the tombs of King and his wife, Coretta.
I saw posters celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act—although the Voting Rights Act itself didn’t survive intact for 50 years but was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.
I viewed photos of activists receiving nonviolent-resistance training at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. I thought of a similar photo that exists of myself with a group of modern activists, many of whom were in Cleveland at that moment attending the Movement for Black Lives Convening. I paused to scroll through my Twitter feed and saw that attendees of the convening in Cleveland had just been pepper-sprayed by a cop. An anger that had been slowly rising within me during my visit finally boiled over.
I’m struck by the way society can commemorate the movement of the past while condemning the movement of the present. Or how it can continually celebrate social progress in the most abstract of ways while ignoring the realities of what is required for social progress to occur. Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act happened only because there were black Americans refusing to comply with oppression, creating disruption and posing direct challenges to the United States’ racial caste system.
In 1963, Birmingham, Ala., was one of the most segregated cities in the United States of America. Black citizens faced brutal racial and economic oppression. If they protested, they faced violence from police and local authorities. To ask, “Was the Birmingham campaign of 1963 really necessary?” seems like a ridiculous question to most people today.
Yet some of those very same people whose 20-20 hindsight never fails them seem blind to the present. They ask why Black Lives Matter protesters staged die-ins at the malls, disrupting America’s high holy shopping season, or why they blocked traffic on the highways. Do they pause to “express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations”? Instead of asking why young black people are interrupting white people at brunch, perhaps we should be asking why equal protection under the law is not a real thing.
In 2015, St. Louis remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States of America. According to Richard Rothstein’s study “The Making of Ferguson,” black citizens there have faced brutal racial and economic oppression for decades, including the following:
... zoning rules that classified white neighborhoods as residential and black neighborhoods as commercial or industrial; segregated public-housing projects that replaced integrated low-income areas; federal subsidies for suburban development conditioned on African-American exclusion; federal and local requirements for, and enforcement of, property deeds and neighborhood agreements that prohibited resale of white-owned property to, or occupancy by, African Americans; tax favoritism for private institutions that practiced segregation; municipal boundary lines designed to separate black neighborhoods from white ones and to deny necessary services to the former; real estate, insurance, and banking regulators who tolerated and sometimes required racial segregation; and urban renewal plans whose purpose was to shift black populations from central cities like St. Louis to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson.
On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson in a place where black citizens are routinely harassed by cops to generate revenue for the city coffers. Brown’s body was left on full display in the street for hours. The officer involved was not arrested.
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When residents objected, police responded with canine units, rifles, tanks and tear gas. Journalists were arrested, protesters were thrown in jail, residents were teargassed in their own front yards. Yet we must explain why there was an uprising in Ferguson? How much longer must we wait for justice? Why must we wait at all?
South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, arguing, “We of the South contend that slavery is right.” The Confederacy was formed in the belief that African Americans should remain in a perpetual state of bondage. For over a hundred years, the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists waved the Confederate battle flag as a sign of nonsurrender as they continued to terrorize and murder black Americans.
In 1961, at the height of the civil rights movement, the all-white South Carolina Legislature voted to raise the Confederate battle flag above the Statehouse. Black residents protested it for the next 54 years.
In June 2015, a white supremacist entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and massacred a local civil rights leader and eight parishioners during Bible study. The state refused to lower the flag even as these victims of a hate crime were laid to rest. Yet instead of asking the state of South Carolina why it took 54 years of protest and a massacre to ultimately remove a hate symbol from its Capitol, James Tyson and I had to explain why we removed the flag ourselves instead of waiting longer. How much longer must we wait for justice? Why must we wait at all?
Some seem to think we’ve reached a point in time where the right to vote has replaced the need to disrupt the system—although the right to vote itself has yet to be secured. Rights are signed into law by the legislature, but history shows that the legislative pen moves in accordance with the pressure of organized protest and disruption in the streets.
This moment requires bold action and disruption of business as usual for the same reasons it was required in Birmingham in 1963. We easily become blind to what we see every day. The continued oppression and brutalization of black life is so normalized that we’re taught to wait and be patient, as though liberation is an inevitable by-product of the passage of time. It’s not and it never has been.
The political establishment cannot praise King with one breath while condemning modern civil disobedience in the next breath. If we are wrong now, King was wrong then. If King was right then, we are right now.
History will remember the Ferguson uprising as a moment of awakening. This small suburb—which many of us might not have ever heard of were it not for the events of August 2014 and the existence of social media—is a microcosm of America. We looked at Ferguson and saw that Ferguson is everywhere. There can be no more waiting for the passage of time to do what only we can do by taking a stand via direct action. When oppression is the status quo, disruption is a moral duty.
The movement lives.