America at a crossroads: BLM, Dr. King, and the tasks ahead

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” – Thomas Gray, “An Elegy written in a Country Churchyard”

The horrific violence last week that took the lives of two innocent African Americans, followed by the killing of five Dallas police officers, has shaken the country. Anger and frustration mix with bewilderment and feelings of powerlessness. Signs of hope are harder to find. Appeals for racial justice now compete against calls for “law and order.” And the ground on which tens of millions stood a week ago, unstable as it was, has shifted and cracked in new and contradictory ways.

Whatever consensus was emerging to ameliorate the racial disparities in our criminal justice system and end the epidemic of black lives cut short by racist policing practices has been damaged under the weight of the events of last week. To what degree and for how long are questions that still don’t yet have answers. And this will probably not change anytime soon, given the contingency and fluidity of the moment.

Not unexpectedly, the media jumped into the fray, providing wall-to-wall coverage. The Rupert Murdoch-owned right-wing juggernaut did all it could to polarize racial divisions and turn Black Lives Matter (BLM) into an unwelcome stranger in its own land. His New York Post screamed “Civil War” on its front page after Dallas. Not to be outdone, its crosstown cousin – FOX TV – did no better. It went to great lengths in its attempt to turn the demonstrators peacefully protesting the police killings of African Americans into the party responsible for the tragic deaths of the five Dallas officers.

As for right-wing talk radio, its venom toward BLM had no bounds. Its defense of indefensible police practices could only remind one of Hitler at the height of his oratorical powers. If the incendiary talk had a common thread, it was to heighten racial tensions to a breaking point.

Other major media outlets did better, but by no means acquitted themselves honorably. I was dumbfounded when I watched Brian Williams on MSNBC – the “liberal” network – provide an uncontested platform for Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and current Trump supporter. Giuliani went on an irresponsible and demagogic rant about black-on-black crime, pointed an accusing finger at President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and labeled the Black Lives Matter movement “un-American.”

That’s outrageous. BLM is continuing in its own way the long and honored American and African American democratic-radical tradition. Indeed, if there is a patriot in all this it isn’t Giuliani, or Trump. It’s BLM.

Though it doesn’t occupy the field of resistance to racist oppression and murder alone, its role – acquired by the force of its words and bodies – has been extraordinary. In insisting that a reluctant country, comfortable in the routine of its everyday life, turn its attention to what is an existential crisis facing young men of color, BLM has awakened a nation to a profound moral crisis that requires action from every one of us. And it is this that drives the coordinated right-wing media to try to de-legitimatize BLM – and in so doing, tame the entire movement to protect black lives and dull our moral compass.

Meanwhile Trump, to no surprise, was quick to appeal for “law and order,” while at the same time off-loading some of the most inflammatory rhetoric to acolytes like Chris Christie and others. No doubt Trump and his advisors, well aware of their narrow pathway to the White House, see the events in Dallas, as well as the attacks in San Bernardino and Brussels, as unique opportunities to change the dynamics of the elections to their favor.

By contrast, both Obama and Clinton appealed for healing, unity, and nonviolence – without burying the just demands of the protest movement against police violence and murder. In his powerful speech in Dallas, the President implored and challenged the many audiences that comprise this country. He reminded everyone of how important it is to have someone measured and thoughtful, rather than someone given to recklessness, in the White House.

Violence is intrinsic to our unequal social order

While nearly everyone condemned the violence that has left the country on edge, few have acknowledged that state-sanctioned violence and coercion are foundational – if not singular – pillars in the formation and maintenance of inequality and exploitation. This is especially true when it comes racial inequality, oppression, and exploitation. No one should think that the police and security forces; the prisons and mass incarceration; the hangman’s noose and the electric chair; “neutral” courts, laws, and sentencing practices; “wars” on crime and drugs; and repressive and deadly police practices in the ghetto and barrio (not to mention the reservation), are simply to protect law-abiding people.

Far more importantly, this far-flung, well-funded, and fully-staffed apparatus is the necessary political and material infrastructure to defend a racial and social order from the actions of subordinate classes. From people who are forced to live generation after generation in segregated, poverty-stricken, resource-starved, and drug- and gun-infested communities that cruelly deny them humanity and opportunities for a better life.

But what is also surprising in these circumstances isn’t that crime or violence occurs. It is that it doesn’t occur more. What’s surprising is that so many people, in the face of what seem like insurmountable obstacles and oppression, are able to live in dignity and peacefully with one another. That they go to work every day, raise their children, build caring and stable families, accomplish great things in varied fields of endeavor, productively contribute to their communities and our society as a whole. All while finding hope, laughter, and courage in the best of days and the darkest of nights.

All of which goes to prove that racism not only dissolves hope, dreams, and dignity. It does more than tear apart families; incarcerate, profile, and sanction official violence; or cut short people’s lives. It doesn’t just reproduce grinding poverty in hyper-segregated communities. Racism – and more to the point, resistance to racism – also begets courage and wisdom. Resistance brings people together, inspires freedom songs and dreams. It turns people of color into a powerful and prophetic voice, a material force for democracy, equality, and peace, and makes them leaders for anti-racist progressive and radical change.

King’s legacy and the tasks of today

At a moment like this, I find it useful to return to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. He taught that racism was neither natural nor eternal. He considered it a debilitating, dehumanizing, and deadly system of oppression and exploitation. At the center of King’s moral vision was nonviolence and nonviolent mass action. As a philosophy and practice, he considered it the best way to speak truth to power and change the hearts (and values) of the inactive and indifferent. It was the way to throw the perpetrators of violence on the defensive. Nonviolence for King stood moral witness for the sacredness of life in a world quick to devalue lives – especially the lives of people of color and the poor.

Freedom-seekers who resorted to violence, he believed, narrowed down popular support for their cause. Violence shifted advantage to those who upheld racism, and dehumanized its practitioners no matter how just and righteous their demands.

At the core of nonviolent mass action was the building of majoritarian, multi-racial movements to eradicate racism, poverty, and war – King’s triplets of destruction and death. King knew such movements, especially those that count in the millions, are seldom of one mind. Invariably, they include people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. They bring different orientations on matters of analysis, strategy, and tactics. Nevertheless, he resisted the pressures – and they were considerable – to narrow down the movement to only those fully on board and ready to embrace the most militant forms of action.

While King never abandoned the focus on ameliorating the worst features of racist oppression, it wasn’t the only ground he occupied. In a speech at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, King said:

“[W]e are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

King here is bringing attention to the structural and institutional – the material and systemic – sources of racial oppression in its myriad forms, much like BLM is doing today. That didn’t diminish the urgency to struggle for immediate and partial reform measures for him, but it kept in sight that the overriding imperative is to dismantle the whole “edifice” of oppression and transform “the whole Jericho road.”

If he were alive today, it is fair to assume that he would deplore the violence, appeal for understanding and multi-racial unity, extend a welcoming hand to the labor movement, and join the marchers protesting the latest racist killings. He would also be the first to defend BLM and other protesters. He would remind the American people, and white people in particular, that what happened last week, including the deaths of the Dallas policemen, can’t be separated from the whole edifice of racism and segregation. He would tell them that until that edifice is torn down – and the time for doing so is NOW – our country will face difficult trials.

Finally, King would use this moment to urge people of good will to play their part in the effort to defeat Trump and the rest of the Republicans up and down the ticket. He would tell them to do it in a landslide like the presidential election of 1964, when Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater.

King, unlike some on the left today, didn’t stand aloof from politics or the Democratic Party. Indeed, he understood that his freedom dreams and beloved community stood little chance of becoming a reality if the main levers of political power were in the hands of right-wing extremists. In his time, that meant Goldwater. In ours, it means Trump and the many others who infest our legislative and judicial bodies at the federal and state levels. The notion of disengaging from electoral and legislative work in the name of some abstract political principle was anathema to him.

Even when the Democratic Party was filled with Dixiecrats, whose record of obstruction, nullification, and resistance to the freedom demands of the Civil Rights Movement was a matter of record, King didn’t yield to the idea that political action was a fool’s errand. Especially not when the future of our country, democracy, equality, democratic rights, peace, and a sustainable planet could well hang in the balance, just as they did in 1964. My guess is that he would express a similar position today.

This article originally appeared at the author’s blog,

Photo: Dr. Martin Luther King and others march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 | 


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.