50 Years Later- King’s Letter Challenges Us Still

When it came to injustice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was not a patient man.     


In April of 1963, eight clergymen penned the open letter “A Call For Unity,” urging the Negros of Birmingham to exercise patience with racial progress. In the letter they stated:

…We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. (Emphasis my own)

It is almost as if they are saying, “the good Negroes are being incited to action by those bad, outsider Negroes.” Their words reek of xenophobia and unconscious racism. Dr. King felt compelled to respond.

Sitting in a jail cell for the very demonstrations “A Call For Unity” decries, Martin King writes:

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Masterful. In this one paragraph King links the struggle for racial justice in Birmingham to the cosmic struggle for justice everywhere. He even implies that Socrates (the father of the Western philosophical tradition) would approve. For King — who once said that if he was stranded with only two books to read, he would want a copy of the Bible and Plato’s Republic — one could have no greater intellectual ally.

The eight clergymen’s plea for patience rings hollow. They sit in comfort, and fail (or refuse) to see that they are benefactors of a racial system that has its foot on the throat of black folk in the South. Of course they sense no urgency.

King disagrees. He argues, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King accurately senses a dichotomy in the thinking of his opponents: implicitly they argue that there are Negroes and Whites; insiders and outsiders. They fail to see that injustices suffered by one group affect all groups. Therefore, in ignoring any injustice, one fails to see that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

King envisioned all of humanity as being a part of one community—and it is this vision that compels him in 1967 and 1968 to fight for economic justice in the North with as much fervor as he fought segregation in the South. He would later say that “the plight of the Negro Poor has worsened” and that what was needed was a “redistribution of economic power.” King understood that to effectively combat racism, one must also take on economic injustice. In a speech given to his staff, King discussed his progressive social blueprint:

We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry….Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism…there must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.

King never said that any one person or any one group was the genesis of economic injustice and class inequality. He saw the system as broken. King was suspicious of capitalism’s ability to address the needs of poor people, and regardless of their race, he felt compelled to better the plight of all poor people — it just so happened that people of color were disproportionately impoverished.

King’s letter speaks to us still. Implicitly he argues that all who fight for justice are in solidarity with one another. Whether that fight be for economic justice, gender equality, racial equality, environmental justice, or freedom from political oppression — we are all united. Whether that fight be in Venezuela, Liberia, Main Street, or Wall Street — we are to speak with one voice and declare: A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

King urges us to see that we are all working toward the same goal; fighting for the same cause. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Let us show our solidarity with King by demanding justice.

DSA  will mobilize for an August 50th anniversary March on Washington.  Join us. https://www.dsausa.org/50th_anniversary_march_on_washington

Lawrence Ware is a lecturing professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University. He is also an assistant pastor at Prospect Church in Oklahoma City. He has appeared on HuffPostLive and written for the African American Pulpit, The Crisis, and other publications.