“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone!

These days, MLK Jr. is popularly seen as a romanticized, everyman’s hero. His message is presented as a call for “colorblindness,” and appropriated by the likes of Glenn Beck and other extreme conservatives in support of their arguments against the so called “reverse racism” of affirmative action and other institutionalized attempts to address racial disparities. His activism has been sanitized and romanticized in the public consciousness, stripped of any real controversy or challenge to the status quo. As a result, a lot of people buy into the argument that Dr. King would have championed a radically individualistic understanding of issues of social justice – including the “if everyone just stopped noticing race, racism would go away” argument, a pretense that everyone has equal rights and opportunities, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Dr. King’s work was much more radical and complex than the simplistic, trite sentiment about everyone getting along we’ve reduced it to. We’ve forgotten – chosen to forget – that at the time of his death Dr. King wasn’t a nationally admired visionary, but rather a deeply divisive and, for some, very threatening figure. This was a man who was spied on and threatened by his own government, because he was seen as dangerous. And he was, in fact, a danger to a society in which white supremacy and other forms of injustice were enshrined in law and endorsed by the government.

He was not only an activist for racial justice, but also for economic justice, and against the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, and American militarism and imperialism. He didn’t see these issues as a distraction from the struggle for black civil rights, but rather as interconnected parts of the same larger struggle to create a more just world. And he made quite a lot of enemies as he spoke out against all forms of oppression. Edited to add: Socialist Worker has an excellent article on the Martin Luther King we don’t celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. passionately believed in the common responsibility of all of us to fight all forms of injustice and suffering, and to be in solidarity with all who are denied their rights and their dignity. We can’t know for certain what he would say today about trans liberation, about gay liberation, about ethical consumerism, environmentalism, or any number of social justice issues that continue to face fierce opposition and oppression today. But what we can say for certain is that if we take up his clarion call to see all humans as our family, if we take seriously the call to stand against any injustice or suffering, we’ll care about trans rights, and LGB rights. We’ll care about the poor, and those without access to basic health care. We’ll care about literacy and the rights of all people to a decent education. Because injustice and inequality anywhere are a threat to justice and equality everywhere.

“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice… But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ … I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

“We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be,” she said, quoting from her husband.

Coretta Scott King

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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 . . .

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” « Are Women Human? -- Topsy.com

  2. Absolutely dead on. Last year I circulated the full text of the “I Have A Dream Speech” directly from a labor union’s website. In the rush to pretend that we don’t see race, so many have called Dr. King a hero for eradicating racism, winning the race struggle, et cetera. In this way, they hope you give them a pass on their own race relations, and accept that since they respect Dr. King, they must be good people. The sad truth of that, beyond the obvious one, is that it minimizes the importance of the man’s work, writings, and thoughts on so many issues. There’s a reason Dr. King marched with workers around the country. There’s a reason his widow can make those comments about gays and lesbians. The man was a beacon of hope on the horizon of social change and social progress FOR ALL HUMANITY.

    Check out the Seattle Times for another take on labor relations and Dr. King:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2013940505_guest18honey.html