This year, the formal celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday have been energized by the continuing demonstrations against police injustice triggered by the outrage over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
A new generation is reclaiming Dr. King’s legacy, correctly objecting to the official sanitizing of his actions. Reviving creative, non-violent demonstrations, the demonstrators have been innovative and disruptive. They combine many of the old strategies of the civil rights demonstrations with new technology, using hash tags like #ReclaimMLK on Twitter, text messages and websites to spread their message.
The new generation has been criticized for its disruptive tactics, for not having a clear message and strategy, for potentially alienating people rather than persuading them with their disruption.
But the demonstrators have it right. Nonviolence for Dr. King was not passive, not business as usual. It was engaged in creative disruption, creating tension, exposing the violence and hatred that were central to American apartheid. The boycotts, the sit-ins, the marches often broke the law — and certainly ended business as usual — in the name of justice and the Constitution. Many were angered by the demonstrations. Dr. King was arrested, harassed, scorned and widely hated. Wazi Davis, a student at San Francisco State University, got it right when he was quoted in the New York Times saying, “The Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins — those tactics were all about disruption.”
In retrospect, historians praise the concerted strategy, the clear goals and objections of the civil rights movement. But at the time, the movement was always in motion, often divided. Its goals were as many as the needs of its people. Dr. King sought an end to segregation, but also sought the right to vote and a war on poverty — jobs and justice — and, later, peace in Vietnam. He marched for opening schools, for registering people to vote, for open housing, for jobs, for decent wages, for the right to organize and much more.
Demonstrations were and are the motor force. The civil rights movement also sponsored a systematic litigation strategy, seeking to array the Constitution and the courts against the unjust state and local laws. Brown v. Board of Education was but the most important of legions of cases that applied constitutional rights to overrule the claim of state rights.
Demonstrations and litigation were complemented by legislation. The demonstrations in Selma galvanized global sympathy, enabling President Lyndon Johnson to drive the Voting Rights Act through the Senate. For a brief moment, movement leadership and presidential leadership combined to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the beginnings of the war on poverty, Medicare and more. In a series of speeches — culminating in his electric pledge that “We shall overcome,” President Johnson exhibited a moral presidential leadership that we have not witnessed since. He even appointed the Thurgood Marshall, the general of the civil rights litigation strategy, to the Supreme Court, a remarkable act of recognition.
The new generation of demonstrators is doing its part. Thus far, they have been remarkably disciplined in adhering to nonviolence. It is vital that they sustain that, against what will be many harsher voices — some police provocateurs, some home-grown radicals — calling for more violent measures. Nonviolence is hard, frustrating and difficult to sustain.
Rather than chastise the demonstrators, we should be pushing law schools and lawyers to develop a litigation strategy to challenge the systemic racial bias of our judicial system, from racial profiling on the street to racially skewed mass incarceration. President Obama has convened a commission to make recommendations, but we need a moral voice from political leaders — from mayors to governors to the White House — willing to stand clearly against injustice. Creative nonviolence works only if the society responds to their moral voice and their reminder of the “urgency of now.” The demonstrators have stayed the course. Now it is time for the officials and citizens of good conscience to stand up.