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Commentary: The political and social climate of the era of Martin Luther King Jr. is not so different from today

If he were alive, Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 94 this year. The tragic brevity of his life, cut short by an assassin in 1968, remains a testament to the enduring impact he had in his short time on Earth.

While some find it hard to believe, King lived in a political climate and historical era not all that different from our own. Civil rights activists have been stigmatized as anti-American subversives, communist deceivers, and unpatriotic mob—rhetoric echoed in contemporary attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters and even schoolteachers whose class studies on black and American history have provoked a political backlash reminiscent of civil rights. era.

Then, as now, racism, war, poverty and violence reigned domestically, and their parallel rise in the international arena threatened world peace and stability. Social justice movements have grown at home and abroad, and anti-democratic forces have organized strongholds in America that, although rooted in the former Confederate Deep South, stretch from sea to shining sea. At the same time, the quest for what King called “the community he loves”—a world free of war plague, the violence of racism, and the indignities of poverty—inspired social justice and peace campaigners in King’s day, as they do today.

In our time, modern activists advocate the abolition of racist biased systems of punishment, imprisonment and law enforcement. And, like their predecessors, they continue to push for voting rights, equal education, and environmental justice in communities of color—all of which continue King’s legacy. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King remarked amidst the turmoil of 1963 in a letter from a Birmingham prison. “We are caught in an inevitable web of reciprocity, bound by the same garment of destiny.”

King criticized the version of white allies that existed in his era, admitting that he was deeply disappointed with white moderates. King challenged the moral equivalence of his day, when white political and community leaders at times criticized both Jim Crow segregationists and civil rights activists who also protested this unjust system. This kind of political hand-wringing is reflected in today’s political climate, in which white moderates are hesitant to support voting rights, often misinterpret prison abolitionists as anti-police agitators, and fail to make a strong case for protecting the rights of educators to educate children. a more complete account of American history for high school students.

King wrote in 1963: “I have almost come to the deplorable conclusion that the greatest stumbling block for the Negro on the road to freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counselor or the Ku Klux Klansman, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefer the negative world, that is, the absence of tension, to the positive world, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you about the goal you are pursuing, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” Just a few months later, King explained at the March on Washington: the promise of democracy.”

MLK Day 2023 reminds us that today’s guerrilla units are not all that different from the political landscape that King faced in his day. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were not preordained and were not universally recognized legislation. They were controversial, heatedly debated, and punctuated by a decade of uprisings that conservatives condemned as riots, activists regarded as uprisings, and the government characterized as civil unrest.

King famously described the riots as “the language of the unheard”. Less well known is his scathing critique of political moderation from a Birmingham prison cell. Dr. King may find in our current age of attacks on teaching blacks the history of voter suppression and the backlash against the fight for racial and economic justice a depressingly familiar reminder of the problems he faced 60 years ago. However, King remained defiantly optimistic about the movement’s ability to bend the will of history to the long-delayed recognition of black citizenship and dignity. “We will achieve the goal of freedom in Birmingham and throughout the country, because the goal of America is freedom,” he wrote while in prison.

And he did not stop there, because King understood that some things are universal. If blacks were recognized as American citizens with their inherent dignity, history of colonialism, economic racism, war, poverty, and violence could be overcome. This belief remains more resonant in our time, no matter how far we feel from King’s life. His legacy is all around us.

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