Saturday is set aside as a national holiday to celebrate and appreciate the freedom we enjoy as Americans, yet the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder are trying to tell us that some in this society have less freedom than others.
Seeking wisdom on the race issue, I always turn first to Martin Luther King Jr. The rest of this column consists mainly of his words. I will let them speak for themselves regarding our present situation. (All quotes from A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr.)
Longing for freedom
The determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from every form of oppression springs the same profound longing for freedom that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world. (Nonviolence and Racial Justice, p. 7)
Our goal is freedom. … We are simply seeking to bring into full realization the American dream-a dream yet unfulfilled. (An Address Before the National Press Club 1962, p. 105)
The extent of the problem
Many white people joined our struggle yet the largest portion of white America is still poisoned by racism. (A Testament of Hope, p. 316)
Everyone underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the vast amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising. They are the product of this period of identity crisis and directionless confusion. (ATH, p. 317)
Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful? (ATH, p. 314)
The problem is so tenacious because despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy flawed, both economically and socially. All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. (ATH, p. 314)
If we look honestly at the realities of our national life, it is clear that we are not marching forward; we are groping and stumbling; we are divided and confused. Our moral values and our spiritual confidence sink, even as our material wealth ascends. (ATH, p. 315)
[The black revolution] is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws — racism, poverty, militarism and materialism … evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. (ATH, p. 315)
To this day, black Americans have not life, liberty nor the privilege of pursuing happiness, and millions of poor white Americans are in economic bondage that is scarcely less oppressive. (ATH, p. 315)
But many white people in the past joined our movement with a kind of messianic faith that they were going save the Negro and solve all his problems quickly … which is especially true of students. (ATH, p. 316)
How to wage the struggle
Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals. (An Address Before the National Press Club, 1962)
Privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without strong resistance. (Nonviolence and Racial Justice 1962, p. 7)
Hence the basic question which confronts the world’s oppressed is: How is the struggle against the forces of injustice to be waged? (NRJ, p. 7)
Five points can be made concerning nonviolence as a method in bringing about better racial conditions:
First, this is not a method for cowards; it does resist. This method … is nonaggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.
A second point is that nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.
A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in the forces.
A fourth point … is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. … Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.
Fifth, the method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is this deep faith in the future that causes the nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation. He knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. (NRJ, p. 7-9)
But the sullen and silent slave of 110 years ago, an object of scorn at worst or of pity at best, is today’s angry man. He is vibrantly on the move; he is forcing change, rather than waiting for it in pathetic futility. In less than two decades, he has roared out of slumber to change so many of his life’s conditions that he may yet find the means to accelerate his march forward and overtaking the racing locomotive of history. (ATH, p. 313)
These words have an unexpectedly optimistic ring at a time when pessimism is the prevailing mood. (ATH, p. 314))
While it is a bitter fact that in America in 1968, I am denied equality solely because I am black, yet I am not a chattel slave. Millions of people have fought thousands of battles to enlarge my freedom; restricted as it still is, progress has been made. This is why I remain an optimist, though I am also a realist, about the barriers before us. (ATH, p. 314)
A Testament of Hope was published after Dr. King’s death in 1968, so how can his words sound so relevant even after half a century? Many things have changed. Much has not. Some react with anger. Others respond with determination. Still others with resignation.
The title is not “A Testament of Optimism,” not “A Testament of Pessimism,” but “A Testament of Hope.” Hope is not propelled by the reinforcement of success. Rather it is pulled into the future by a vision of what could and should be.