Wednesday, December 9 marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize Award. King’s acceptance speech in 1964 and his Nobel Lecture one day later came at a time of great flux for the Civil Rights Movement, the larger Black freedom struggle, and liberation movements around the world.
As #BlackLivesMatter storms the country and people continue to protest for human rights across the world, here are five resonant comparison points and lessons from Dr. King’s remarks.
1. Movements for freedom and liberation are rising up all over the world, just as they were in the ’60s.
In his Nobel Lecture, King said, “What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion, the realization of ‘an idea whose time has come.’ ” From people in Ferguson and New York, to workers in South Africa, to youth in Hong Kong, Egypt and Palestine—people all over the world are rising up in the continued fight for democracy and basic human rights.
“The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and land. They are awake and moving toward their goal like a tidal wave. You can hear them rumbling in every village street, on the docks, in the houses, among the students, in the churches, and at political meetings,” King said.
One point of difference is what these movements were fighting against. King said the era of colonialism was at an end in 1964, noting Africa went from having three sovereign states to 35 in a matter of 30 years. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the soon-to-come Voting Rights Act of 1965 indicated that de jure segregation was nearing its end in the U.S. People today are coming to the realization that a formal end to segregation or colonization is not the same thing as freedom—but that we have to continue to work to ensure these rights and states protect all people.
As #BlackLivesMatter insists, maintaining a focus on eradicating the specific devaluation of Black life will benefit all lives. This is a similar sentiment to what Dr. King expressed in the mid-1960s: “The movement does not seek to liberate Negroes at the expense of the humiliation and enslavement of Whites. It seeks no victory over anyone. It seeks to liberate American society and to share in the self-liberation of all the people.”
2. Then—as now—the work against racism was far from done, but we have the means to see it through.
In many ways, Dr. King understood that the passing of civil rights legislation was not the end of the struggle for black freedom—far from it. “We still have a long, long way to go before the dream of freedom is a reality for the Negro in the United States,” he said. “Before we reach the majestic shores of the Promised Land, there is a frustrating and bewildering wilderness ahead. We must still face prodigious hilltops of opposition and gigantic mountains of resistance.”
Black leaders from King to Stokely Carmichael to Angela Davis lived through this opposition and resistance in the form of COINTELPRO and predicted further repression. Among others, Michelle Alexander has helped us see how the War on Drugs led to the mass incarceration, militarized policing, economic disinvestment and political disempowerment of our communities. While we’ve been aware of these injustices for decades, Ferguson and Eric Garner seem to have been the last straw. “It stops today,” were among Eric Garner’s final words and have been echoed at protests across the nation.
Fifty years ago, Dr. King noted that the people in his era refused to be silent about their rights under similar constraints:
“What the main sections of the civil rights movement in the United States are saying is that the demand for dignity, equality, jobs, and citizenship will not be abandoned or diluted or postponed,” said King. “If that means resistance and conflict, we shall not flinch. We shall not be cowed. We are no longer afraid.”
3. We must address poverty and class issues as we confront racism.
Dr. King said we “must go all out” to address poverty, which he called “one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.” In his lecture he remarked:
“The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed—not only its symptoms, but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.”
In other words, eradicating poverty requires the same intensity of organizing directed against racism. King followed through on this commitment towards the end of his life with the Poor People’s Campaign and participation in the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s strike. Some of these issues resurfaced in popular conversation during the Occupy Movement, and they’re raised yet again by this year’s organizing.
Numerous writers and organizers have indicated that the respectability politics of the Black middle class and its desire to access institutions of power will not save Black people as a whole.
“The brother with the suit and the tie ain’t the brother that’s protecting me. You understand what I’m saying?” Tef Poe said in October. “It’s the young cat with the tattoos on his face that look like Chief Keef with his shirt off… It’s the sister that’s supposed to be going to school, but she out behind momma’s back at the protest every night… You understand what I’m saying?”
The act of exposing the ugliness of racial and economic injustice in 2014 is coming from people society otherwise ignores. Addressing the needs of the most marginalized (whether the unemployed or underemployed, women, trans, queer people, etc.) has been central to the movement conversations emerging from Ferguson so far.
4. We must address war and global issues as we confront poverty and racism
Dr. King famously decried the giant triplets of racism, militarism and extreme materialism in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, but he had been thinking about the intersection of these issues long before he became a civil rights leader and highlighted them in his Nobel Lecture: “Mankind’s survival is dependent upon man’s ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty and war,” he’d said.
King recognized that addressing war brought up “ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, indescribably complicated problems to solve,” but he also said it was essential to eliminate war:
“It is as imperative and urgent to put an end to war and violence between nations as it is to put an end to racial injustice,” King said. “Equality with Whites will hardly solve the problems of either Whites or Negroes if it means equality in a society under the spell of terror and a world doomed to extinction.”
The events of this summer in Palestine and Ferguson brought these connections of militarism and of transnational solidarity closer to home. The contradictions of a government that has billions for drones and wars across the Middle East and North Africa but cannot provide basic education for its own population are clear. But beyond our own needs, we have to approach war out of a sense of shared humanity.
People in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Sudan are humans too, with family, friends, hopes and dreams of their own. We have to come to their support just as we would want them to come to ours if we were under attack. The global participation in #BlackLivesMatter is a testament to that.
5. Nonviolent resistance is a long-term commitment.
In his lecture, Dr. King spoke on the meaning of nonviolent resistance within the movement:
“Broadly speaking, nonviolence in the civil rights struggle has meant not relying on arms and weapons of struggle. It has meant noncooperation with customs and laws which are institutional aspects of a regime of discrimination and enslavement. It has meant direct participation of masses in protest, rather than reliance on indirect methods which frequently do not involve masses in action at all,” said King.
While some might view nonviolence as requiring passivity or docility, Dr. King acknowledged that the stakes of direct action were high for those who participated:
“Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life.”
Even with these acts of deterrence, Dr. King expressed a measured optimism in the ability of people to struggle through these systems. In the conclusion of his lecture, he said, “In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period something profoundly meaningful is taking place. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away, and out of the womb of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born.”
Indeed, people in Ferguson, New York, Berkeley and elsewhere have been tear-gassed, beaten, arrested and even killed fighting against state sanctioned killing, violence and repression. But it is clear that this repression will not deter the movement. It’s clear that the Ferguson Action team asking for national solidarity seeks nonviolent, direct, intense and sustained action. It’s also clear that we possess the minds, resources and ability to carry Dr. King’s legacy into 2015
Kristian Davis Bailey is a research assistant at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Institute or University. Read more of his prior writing on Ebony.com and follow him on Twitter @kristianbailey.