On April 16, 1963 Martin Luther King sat in a Birmingham jail and wrote a letter. In it, he defended to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference his “untimely and unwise” present activities in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Why Birmingham? “Because injustice is here,” he said. Why protest? “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Protest is perhaps the most viable means to inciting change and it was nonviolent protest that Dr. King championed as the avenue for freedom. It was non-violent direct action that desegregated the buses in Montgomery, the school district in Little Rock and got the vote for millions of disenfranchised Black Americans.
That was 1963, four months from when he would march in Washington, one year from a Civil Rights Act, two years from the Voting Rights Act, and five years from the moment where Dr. King took his last breath in a motel in Memphis. Now, fifty-four years later, we are still protesting the same thing Dr. King sat and marched for: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as put forth in a document signed by fifty-six men who did not truly believe that all men are created equal.
First-time author Nic Stone grapples with the question “are we equal now?” in her novel Dear Martin. In it, our protagonist Justyce McAllister, after enduring a violent confrontation with a police officer, begins to write letters addressed to Dr. King as a means for tackling the trauma of being in a Black body in America. He calls it his “Be Like Martin” experiment. In his letters, he confides his anxiety, confusion and anger in Martin (as he calls him). Justyce writes, “Last night changed me. I don’t wanna walk around all pissed off and looking for problems, but I know I can’t continue to pretend nothing’s wrong.”
But is there really a problem? Dear Martin tackles the premise that we live today in a post-racial society. After all, it can be tempting to believe such a thing when a black man was President of the United States for not one but two terms. “This is a color-blind society, my brethren,” a white character says in the Dear Martin. “People are judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin.” The content of their character. Perhaps the most famous words from Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech.” King’s full line reads, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” If we are truly a colorblind society, then there should be no reason to protest for civil rights.
However, the need for non-violent protest in the ongoing battle for civil rights is more pressing than ever. Dr. King outlined the process of non-violent protest accordingly: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” In response to the disproportionate deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of United States police, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created Black Lives Matter, an international activist movement. In his “I have a dream speech” given before the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King speaks on police brutality and the necessary non-violent response. Black Lives Matter is one such protest: a response to continuing police brutality that has not lessened, but has been transformed into the War on Drugs and the War on Crime, state-approved militarized campaigns which have left Black and Brown bodies as casualties.
In 2016, American football player Colin Kaepernick sat during the National Anthem during a preseason game. When asked why he did not stand he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Justyce has a similar frustration telling Martin, “Every time I turn on the news and see another black person gunned down, I’m reminded that people look at me and see a threat instead of a human being.”
Kaepernick has inspired a wave of protests throughout the National Football League where players across the thirty-two clubs take a knee during the National Anthem. Their action is a non-violent protest against police brutality and pervasive racial and social inequality. However, from the beginning, this protest was considered by many as an egregious act of disrespect. Kneeling before the flag is viewed as an insult to American service women and men who fought and continue to fight for our freedom. The protests, others argued should be done on the player’s own time, not during some of the country’s most watched televised events.
But taking a knee is only the latest in a slew of non-violent protests in the last ten years. Black Lives Matter organized peaceful protests after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Each protest was met with police intervention and intense media scrutiny. “That’s not the way to protest,” many said. Then what is the way? How should Black people protest? No sitting, no kneeling, no walking. If this seems limiting, that’s because it is. What we all know, however, is that critics don’t actually have a problem with the method of protest, but that marginalized American citizens feel that there is a cause to protest. Critics do not believe that there is a cause, but how to convince them? How to convince another that universal freedom is not yet had by all? How to do, for our current moment, what Dr. King did with “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”?
Dr. King concludes his letter from Birmingham jail with an apology. “Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” Justyce tries to be like Martin, “but to what end” he asks. He feels as though his experiment has failed, wondering if he has been asking the wrong questions. Perhaps it’s not what would Martin do but rather “who would Martin be?” Who do we become in the face of injustice? In the difficult days ahead the mountaintop seems so very far away and true freedom seems elusive. Dr. King told the congregation in Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he died, however, that he had seen the Promised Land. He believed that we would get there. Someday we will.