“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Letter from Birmingham jail).
Today, we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his life in the fight against injustice. He, along with thousands of other Americans, used peaceful protest and civil disobedience in an effort to secure African-American’s equal access to the vote, education, work, transportation, and housing.
Dr. King may be gone, but the fight for equality rages on. In the 21st century, advocates of social justice fight against institutional racism, which refers to institutional practices that negatively affect a group of people based on their race or ethnicity. In the last several years, we have seen Americans push back against institutional racism in our criminal justice system.
Consider the following tables from Slate, which highlight racial inequalities in the American criminal justice system.
African-Americans are 3x as likely to have their cars searched by police.
African-Americans are 2x as likely to be arrested for drug use.
African-Americans are more likely to serve longer sentences than white Americans for the same offense.
African-Americans are more likely to be disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.
African-Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population, but are more likely to die at the hands of police than white Americans (data from The Washington Post).
*The steady increase in the number of “unknown race” is not explained.
This systematic inequality and the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown spurred the new wave of activism that we see today. Contemporary activists associated with movements such as Black Lives Matter and Take a Knee use civil disobedience and peaceful protest in an effort to get politicians, law enforcement, and their fellow Americans to recognize and address the problems that plague American institutions. Their goals are relatively modest in this regard. They want, among other things, to:
- Change how law enforcement police communities of color.
- Change how law enforcement interact with African-Americans during routine stops.
- Equalize detainment and sentencing.
- Create commissions that put residents and law enforcement into regular contact with one another.
Like the 1960s civil rights movement, contemporary activists have drawn criticism for their tactics. This is particularly true of citizens who used their celebrity as platform to make a political statement. Colin Kaepernick and the more than 200 NFL players who have taken a knee during the National Anthem in an effort to start a conversation about institutional racism in the criminal justice system are sometimes accused of abusing their status as athletes and entertainers for political purposes. They are, some argue, at work and paid to play football, not make political statements. It is worth remembering that these players are in good company. Not only did athletes use the National Anthem to make a political statement in the 1960s, plenty of celebrities withdrew their talents from the marketplace in order to make a political point. Sammy Davis Jr, Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Hazel Scott, Paul Robeson, James Brown, Josephine Baker, and many others all refused to sing for segregated audiences.
It is also worth remembering that Dr. King’s use of nonviolent civil disobedience was controversial at the time. However, in 1963 a group of clergymen wrote an open letter, calling civil rights activism “untimely and unwise.” The clergymen urged citizens to stop disrupting communities with their use of civil disobedience, and to trust the U.S. court system to change law and society. Nothing, they argued, would be accomplished by taking their grievances to the streets. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King disagreed. He, among other things, distinguished “just” from “unjust” laws, arguing that Americans are morally obligated to oppose the latter. King argued that nonviolent civil disobedience opposed unjust laws peacefully and respectfully. These fierce public debates over tactics are easy to forget, especially since activists across the political spectrum wrap themselves in Dr. King’s legacy.
Whether or not you agree with the Take A Knee movement, we need to understand it in context. It reflects a desire to make America’s promises available to all citizens, and a legacy of using controversial tactics to push all of us to think more deeply about uncomfortable issues. It is the modern day civil rights movement.
All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (from I’ve Been To The Mountain Top)
Deana A. Rohlinger is a Professor of Sociology. She studies political participation and social movements in America.
The featured picture from Biography.