Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is the written document I most cherish; it’s an ongoing affirmation of my experiences as a faith-based community organizer.
King penned it while sitting in jail, following his arrest for civil disobedience on Good Friday, 1963, as a response to a letter that had been published in Alabama newspapers that day. That letter, written by eight Caucasian clergymen from Alabama, indicated support for ending segregation, yet criticized King, questioned his tactics and urged people, particularly African-American Southerners, to withdraw their support of King. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been leading boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins and marches for nine days when the letter from clergy was published. The letter writers called King “an outside agitator,” “unwise and untimely,” and “an extremist.”
I am an outside agitator. I am unwise and untimely. I am an extremist. The criticism of our work today echoes every criticism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
Aside from these letters, I first heard the term “outside agitator” in 2014. Like King in Birmingham, I was invited to Ferguson because of my work with More2. Commentators speculated that “outside agitators” created the uprising in Ferguson, as a way of discrediting us. If the public believed Ferguson was a place of tranquility before people like me showed up, then nothing would have to change. But, like King, we were joining organized people who were living in racist conditions, “because injustice is here.”
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The clergy letter urges King to “wait.” Today, people tell us to “wait and see” if President-elect Trump begins mass deportation efforts before we develop a strategy to fight it. “Wait and see” if the Board of Police Commissioners makes changes we seek before we protest. Wait. Just yesterday, someone said “patience is a virtue,” as a matter of criticizing my approach. When it comes to expecting people to wait on justice, patience is not virtuous. Acting with urgency is a virtue. Speaking up is a virtue. Calling people out for racism is a virtue.
In this work, everything we do is considered “unwise” and “untimely.” How dare we demand changes from law enforcement the same year officers have been killed in our community? On the surface, it sounds unwise and untimely. But for the family of Ryan Stokes, who still awaits justice in the killing of Stokes by a KCPD officer in 2013, our actions are neither unwise nor untimely. In fact, we should have acted sooner.
King addresses their urge to “wait” throughout the letter. He writes, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ ”
People who authentically support justice stay focused on correcting the original injustice, rather than criticizing reactions to it.
It still strikes me as odd that I am an “extremist” when I am seeking justice. To me, calling Black Lives Matter a hate group or criticizing Colin Kaepernick sounds “extreme” whilst ignoring what they stand (or kneel) against. But King’s letter reminds me that Jesus, Amos, Lincoln and Jefferson were also “extremists.” My peers and I, “extremists” of today, are in good company.
Lora McDonald is the executive director of More2, the Metropolitan Organization for Racial and Economic Equity.