Beyond dreams and the arc of justice

How much of Martin Luther King Jr. have you encountered, first-hand?

[Dear Reader, this is long.]

I have long been one of those people moved to irritation and sometimes anger by misattributed quotes. I once intervened to stop something that Maya Angelou never said from making it into the print edition of the FT’s obituary for her and I no longer even worked there. I feel similarly strongly about unattributed photographs, design, and art — our societal unwillingness to generously and reflexively credit dishonours creativity and undermines the livelihoods of creators.

The flipside of this is I’m prone to tumbling into deep, deep rabbit holes while on the hunt for the source. Where is the quote from? Was it a speech? Oh, it was a speech. Oh, there’s audio. Oh, what was the occassion? Were there other speakers? Was it a book? Oh, it was a book. Now I must read this book. Oh, there are footnotes! Who took the photo? Who made that drawing? And on into the archives.

And so today, when every platform is plastered with quotes — some real, some misattributed, some hilarious given the (lack of) context — from Martin Luther King, Jr., I put together some reading for anyone interested.

First, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963), or the one in which MLK is exasperated while incarcerated and in solitary confinement:

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom…Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.

Second, Give Us The Ballot (1957):

It is a liberalism so bent on seeing all sides, that it fails to become committed to either side. It is a liberalism that is so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed. It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. (All right) We call for a liberalism from the North which will be thoroughly committed to the ideal of racial justice and will not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say: “Slow up for a while; you’re pushing too fast.”

Third, the short speech he delivered the day before he was assassinated in 1968. Imagine:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

I also recommend A Knock at Midnight (1963):

And I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference.

Paul’s Letter to American Christians (1956):

Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.

And because where there are Great Men, there are always and inexorably Forgotten Women:

Like Ella Baker:

Ella Josephine Baker, a black North Carolina native who migrated to New York in the 1920s, was a major part of that ground crew for over 50 years, and her legacy lives on in today’s social movements.

And Fannie Lou Hamer:

When Fannie Lou Hamer testified before the credentials committee of the 1964 Democratic National Convention, she told the world about the torture and abuse she experienced in her attempt to register to vote. Martin Luther King wrote that her “testimony educated a nation and brought the political powers to their knees in repentance, for the convention voted never again to seat a delegation that was racially segregated”

There’s a good package available via PBS if you’re into video and documentary, and this audiobook* is excellent

It’s also worth reading some of the fantastic contemporaneous reporting from Renata Adler and Calvin Trillin in the pages of the New Yorker.

I especially love this exchange captured by Adler in her reporting on the march to Montgomery, because it so succinctly embodies what MLK deplored about how time and whataboutism are used against oppressed people:

“Why don’t you-all go and liberate the Indian reservations, or something?” said the boy from Monroeville. “The Negroes around here are happy.”

“I don’t think they are,” said Mr. Matott.

“I’ve lived in the South all my life, and I know that they are,” the boy from Georgia said.

“I’m not happy,” said the Negro guard.

“Well, just wait awhile,” said the boy from Monroeville.

And finally, because it is important to understand that MLK was not nearly universally beloved, and especially not by the powerful, the (unsigned-at-the-time) 1964 letter from the FBI urging him to kill himself.


PS: Theodore Parker’s words are more familiar to you than you might know:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice

— Theodore Parker in Of Justice and the Conscience

[Good background on how Parker informed both MLK and Obama via Lincoln in Quote Investigator and All Things Considered]

PPS: James Baldwin didn’t say this, either:

We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.

— Robert Jones Jr., who is known online as “Son of Baldwin” (no relation) is the author.

* Amazon affiliate link.