Decades after the establishment of the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Movements of the 20th Century, the mists of memory and denial have softened for many of the revolutionary aspects of Dr. King’s legacy. In our dominant national culture and political discourse, centered on and animated by the white imagination, the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-century seems to have been reduced to a nostalgic soundtrack of gospel hymnology, grainy photographs of certain high-profile marches, and a false narrative cloaked as a comforting story of an inevitable triumph of a united, multicultural America. And yet, white supremacy not only persists, but is abetted by those who actively seek to deny voting rights and perpetuate grave inequalities in income, housing, health, and policing.
In light of the violent attack on the Legislative Branch of the U.S. Government in an illegitimate attempt to prevent the national election from being certified — coming as it did after a year which pierced the fog of false sense of American innocence, legacies of colonialism, slavery, exclusion, and differential policing – it seems appropriate not just to follow the calls for a national day of service, but to stop and reflect on just what (and who) we appropriately commemorate today.
For while Dr. King was indeed a world historical figure worthy of memorialization, we choose to recognize his legacy within a movement conceived and activated by the countless women, children, families, churches, communities, artists, activists, prisoners, workers, teachers, and citizens of the United States, and the world alike, who came together to challenge the racist status quo. As Ella Baker characterized it, the Freedom Movement was about organizing a strong people rather than following a strong leader. It is the legacy of such a people – honored through the work of Dr. King on this holiday – that not only challenges all Americans, but provides a vital revolutionary tradition for us all to uphold amid the work of making a just society for all. The goal of justice must be the comfort, joy, and satisfaction of the oppressed.
Strive for the Good, Purposefully
Dr. King’s leadership and legacy was not an accidental or inevitable emergence but was conscious and purposeful, strategically maximizing his galvanizing energy to rally support and perseverance in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yet Dr. King’s activism flowed from earlier events. In the 1930s, upon returning from an international conference in Germany where he had witnessed the rise of Nazism, Pastor Michael King, Sr. renamed himself and his son for the Protestant Reformer. The senior King was part of the Baptist World Alliance’s effort to “deplore and condemn as a violation of the law of God the Heavenly Father, all racial animosity, and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward coloured people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.” This episode in Dr. King’s youth not only demonstrates his family and their community’s commitment to the struggle against oppression, but helps us understand the forces against which his example calls upon us to fight: the fascism, racism, and white supremacy that exists not just overseas or in the pages of history, but in the United States of 2021.
Moral Imperatives and Worldly Struggles Are Inseparable
Dr. King challenged his fellow citizens to confront both the external and the internal, taking care not to ignore the “realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion” while unflinchingly fighting for political, racial, and economic justice. At Grace Farms Foundation, we also recognize in King the teachings of Howard Thurman, the 20th Century mystical theologian and one of King’s theological mentors, in combining the political and cultural fight against poverty, racism, and violence, with an internal quest for grace and peace. Through our Initiatives (Nature, Arts, Justice, Community, and Faith) and in our work, we strive to embody that contemplative/active dynamic in actions ranging from providing meals and personal protective equipment, amplifying the voices of excluded communities, convening and collaborating with artists and activists, and seeking accountability for traffickers and corrupt officials who ravage communities and ecosystems.
Truth Is a Radical Act, Stronger Than Violence and Hatred
Beaten, investigated, jailed, and ultimately murdered for challenging the white power structure that has hardened and expanded since the Jim Crow era, Dr. King in life was not accepted by Americans across the political and racial spectrum as he might seem to be today. Dr. King’s words and legacy were not feel-good sayings to be brought out once a year, but were radical calls to action, calling for the type of social reckoning possible only through nation-wide recognition and remediation of a racial injustices. Those who actively opposed or failed to cooperate with Dr. King in his lifetime have their successors in modern America. Some of those successors are self-conscious white supremacists. King conveyed his greatest disappointment when lamenting the political passivity of white moderates, who protected the status quo through inexcusable naivete, conspicuous silences, and socio-political inertia. Just as in Dr. King’s lifetime, today there are also those who are more interested in comfort than they are in justice, who find the impatient, direct action necessary for social change to be implausible, disorderly, and ultimately unacceptable. Perniciously, nationalist commentators and politicians seek to bring many of those people wholly to their side through appeals for law and order or false equivalencies between Black Lives Matter protests and the violent assault on the Capitol.
Whether overtly violent or careful in their opposition, many of his white contemporaries would not accept the truths that Dr. King and his forebearers expounded about the United States. They knew that the consequences of his vision and the consequences of honestly stating and confronting those evident truths would celebrate and realize a multicultural America with different avenues for social and economic opportunities for people of color, the poor, and other excluded groups. He knew that the backlash would be violent, and he suffered that backlash to the point of assassination. But Dr. King also knew that those truths – and the determined non-violence of anti-racist organizing, striking, and demonstrating – are in the end more powerful than the short shock of the violent mob:
[I]n spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
Actions Have Consequences, and the First Step to Reconciliation Is Justice
While there is an impulse to strive toward a national healing in the wake of shocking events or great tragedies, reflexive mercy to the unrepentant guilty is injustice to the victimized. In addressing white supremacy, King famously posed the metaphor of a festering infection that cannot simply be covered over, but must be exposed to light and air. Reconciliation cannot simply be reversion to a white supremacist mean as happened after the sabotaging of Reconstruction. We necessarily are in an accountability moment, whether confronting an assault on the Capitol or the state of the American justice system. That makes sense in the Grace Farms context, where the centered Grace toward which we work is only possible not just through nature, arts, justice, community, and faith, but also through justice. An accountability moment can be (and when appropriate, should be) through the legal system, but it can also be political, social, or cultural.
Given the mission and our driving values of Grace Farms Foundation, we must believe in Redemption and Reconciliation, but as Ibram Kendi suggested recently, the desire to move straight to reconciliation is a denial that leaves the worst aspects of American culture to ferment in a toxic stew of racial and religious bigotry, hypermasculine rejection of institutions and shared experiences, and a culture of violence in which the individual desires are unbound and uncontrollable. As Bernice King tweeted this week, “We can’t skip peace and get to justice.”
Racism Cloaked in Politesse Is Still Racism
White supremacy in the United States has proven very persistent, and backlash to racial justice has taken place both as overt violence and sophisticated workarounds. Massive Resistance did not simply take the form of a violent mob at a lunch counter or police brutality against marchers – it quickly became wordsmithed into “acceptable” structures as white-only Christian Academies and seemingly race-neutral policies (such as anti-affirmative action efforts) masquerading as protecting the non-discrimination principle. Policymakers at the national, state, and local levels evaded and twisted Civil Rights laws even as they publicly disavowed the horrors of children murdered in a church bombing or communities terrorized by white mobs, and racist paramilitaries such as the Ku Klux Klan. Today, political and cultural leaders, with a straight face, repeat coded language and separatist policies, secure in the knowledge that as long as they don’t cross the line into overt hate speech or outright violence, they will be able to achieve divisive goals while avoiding responsibility. That level of intellectual dishonesty and racist impunity must be stopped once and for all.
We have heard such rhetoric in the last week, seeking to excuse insurrectionists as mere frustrated protestors and refusing to hold instigators accountable for the natural outcome of their hostile directives. Accordingly, through our programming and our activities in the coming year, Grace Farms will interrogate the “dog-whistles” and half-truths that have too long been successfully used to cloak racist policies and political arguments from opprobrium.
Achieving the Grace and Peace of Social Justice Requires Hard Work. Join us.
As you can see, we are recognizing this year that there is a profound sense of urgent examination surrounding this holiday, amidst fatigue and fear. Pope John Paul II once said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” The time to work is, for many white Americans, long overdue. Statements, inspirational quotations drained of context, or even national days of service will not get us to the fair, just, democratic society for which countless Black leaders have lost their lives. Rather, we have to articulate, activate, organize, and deliver with a persistence and purposefulness that Dr. King demonstrated. To do so, we need to put away false visions of America, of Dr. King and the holiday established in his honor, and to recognize the uncompromising nature of his work and its basis in the Black Radical Tradition.
We can never forget that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life followed a line of resistance from the countless Africans who refused to be enslaved, in one way or another, and died in their refusal. This legacy of resistance does not simply rest with such historic heroes as Cato, Vesey, Turner, Douglass, Truth, Tubman, Jacobs, Revels, Washington, Wells, DuBois, Hughes, Marshall, Baldwin, Baker, Evers, X, Baraka, Davis, Morrison, Lorde and so many more, but is a legacy available to all of us.
The Freedom Movement, in which King’s legacy sings, was the rising chorus of a great cloud of witnesses and their actions in history. It is a movement built not only on great tragedies and acts of violence, but also on profound demonstrations and celebrations of humanity’s highest ideals. Through the lens of the Apostolic tradition, in which King rhetorically and earnestly identified himself while incarcerated in a Birmingham jail, we can all align ourselves with so great a cloud of witnesses and find our way to the work at hand, the imminent and final undoing of white supremacy. In so doing, we can all honor this day, and this man, whose merit makes now upon us an unyielding demand.
We hope that you join us on that journey, in 2021 and beyond.
Photo: Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation ©
 J. H. Rushbrooke, ed., Fifth Baptist World Congress: Berlin, August 4-10, 1934 (London: Baptist World Alliance, 1934), p. 17
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1964
 David W. Blight, “Europe in 1989, America in 2020, and the Death of the Lost Cause”, The New Yorker, July 1, 2020.
 Ibram X. Kendi, “Denial Is the Heartbeat of America”, The Atlantic, January 11, 2021