Eric Patterson on Martin Luther King Jr’s Measured, People-Power Approach to Protest

During the past week of protest and riot, I have heard one question uttered over and over.  Who can we turn to for unity? Or, What national voices are left who can speak across divides? I asked a group of college students, all selectively-chosen DC interns, these questions today (at the time of writing) during a Zoom seminar. The chat box remains blank.

I reintroduced the students, and perhaps we all need to be reintroduced, to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s potent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963). It is a sublime statement against injustice. It is also a challenge to not allow hatred to take root in our hearts.

King was responding, from his jail cell, to letters from local religious leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, who suggested that he and other civil rights activists were “outsiders” bringing discord to their fair city. He responds by nodding to John Donne: there is injustice in Birmingham and no man, no community, is an island unto itself.  We are a part of the whole. We are the United States of America. Injustice in Birmingham is injustice in America.

King disagrees with the pastors. He did not bring discord to Birmingham — the strife was already there due to segregation. He then outlines the thoughtful, four-step process of his non-violent campaign. The campaign begins with the careful collection of facts which are then presented to civil authorities.  Every effort should be made at negotiation before confrontation. Such had been tried, and utterly failed, in Birmingham.

Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is executive vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC. | Courtesy of Eric Patterson

The third step catches most readers off-guard: self-purification. King writes, “Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification.” He later says, “nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

How does one self-purify? First, King says, civil rights activists had to ensure that they could “accept the blows without retaliating.” More importantly, King stresses neighbor-love as the basis for righteous indignation. Righteous anger, whether the anger of Jesus driving illicit money-changers from the Temple or the anger of bystanders who witnessed the murder of George Floyd, can be motivated by love. King calls them “extremists for love,” and labels Jesus, St. Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Abraham Lincoln as such “creative extremists.”

Thus King’s admonition: do not fall into hate. Hatred is evil. Hatred is destructive. And, hatred is, as King well knew, counter-productive to justice.

The fourth step is nonviolent direct action such as sit-ins and marches. “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 to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” He concludes this section, “My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.”

As I have watched events unfold in the past week, I wish King had been here to give some guidance. The righteous anger King talks about was apparent in the voices of bystanders calling for the police to allow George Floyd to sit up. I think King would have been proud of citizens and families, from all walks of life, praying and marching in solidarity against the brutality that caused the death of this individual. Moreover, the marchers larger concern is not a single incident, but what they perceive to be a pattern. It is noteworthy that many of these demonstrations occurred lawfully and peacefully in broad daylight.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Eric Patterson