Has there ever been a better time to reread Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”?
Horrified by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, people across the nation are taking to the streets to organize peaceful protests against police brutality. But in many cases, including those in Phoenix and Scottsdale over the weekend, they have turned into riots or non-peaceful events due in part to the influence of agitators and those who want to shift the conversation away from police brutality to something else.
In our family, we’ve had plenty of conversations about how actively involved we should be in the protests. We’ve questioned whether it’s appropriate to attend a peaceful protest, knowing that it could turn into a riot or get violent.
I am white. My husband is black. He’s also an immigrant who recently retired from 22 years in federal law enforcement. Our three children (two adults and a teen) are biracial and multicultural, enjoying the love of family members of different races, different backgrounds and different countries.
The answer to whether we should support or participate in the current protests is a simple “yes.”
It’s easy to support protesters when events are peaceful. It’s harder to maintain that support when things turn violent or windows get broken.
But now is not the time to sit silently on the sidelines. The voice of the peaceful protesters needs to be supported and protected so that the true message, that injustice for one is injustice for all, makes it through the noise and distraction to be heard loud and clear. The voice of those seeking justice must drown out the voices of those seeking to disrupt that message.
Police brutality, injustice and racism are issues that concern us all, regardless of race, education or where we live.
When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he was responding to criticism from area pastors questioning why he was in Birmingham. At the time, King was considered one of the “outside agitators.”
I am here because injustice is here, was his response. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one, directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
The letter goes on to talk about the brutality and injustices faced by African Americans in the segregated South and the need to confront the issue with nonviolent action.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored,” he wrote.
Decades later, today’s protesters find themselves in a similar situation, needing to explain why they’re protesting despite the riots and violence that seem to mar the peaceful intent of these events.
But the message of the protesters is as important today as it was 50 years ago: There is no choice but to end the injustice of racism and police brutality against minorities.
It’s time for those still sitting on the sidelines to get off the sidelines and support the protesters and their message. Whether it’s attending a protest, march or prayer service or sharing a message of peace on social media, now is the time to get involved. The battle for justice needs all its warriors at attention and ready to serve.
Those who wish to read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” may do so for free online at www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
Melissa St. Aude can be reached at email@example.com.