Dr. King’s Timeless Call for Justice

Placing bombs among civilians as happened at the Boston Marathon is an inexcusable act, but Americans invite future violence when they ignore how their government’s acts of brutality abroad drive people to extremism, a half-century-old lesson from Martin Luther King Jr., as Jose-Antonio Orosco recalls.

By Jose-Antonio Orosco

April 16 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” which is now a classic document in American history and compelling testimony to the power of nonviolence and the struggle for equality.

Just a day before the anniversary, the Boston Marathon was marred by a horrific event, the placing of two crude but deadly bombs among the crowd near the finish line. At first glance, it may seem there is very little to connect the two: what does a document dealing with civil rights have to do with a terrorist bombing?

Martin Luther King Jr.

We ought to remember that, for decades, African Americans lived under constant threat of terrorist violence at the hands of white supremacist groups such as the KKK. Those that were not victims of physical lynchings often had to live with the psychological scars of being treated as second-class citizens.

Few people could understand, King wrote, how heartbreaking it is to explain to one’s own children why they can’t attend an amusement park because of segregation, or to try to come up with an answer to the question “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” that will not somehow harden that child’s heart forever.

In his letter, Dr. King tries to remind moderate white Americans who were concerned about marches and rallies getting out of hand that, in staging demonstrations around the country, civil rights activists were not trying to stir up trouble. Instead, they were trying to deal with the trouble that already existed in the United States and was overlooked by most people.

In using nonviolent civil disobedience, the activists were not attempting to create tension, but to find a way to give expression to the anger and “hidden tension” that boiled underneath the thin layer of normalcy generated by racist segregation. He called upon people to deal with the underlying causes of violence and not traffic in “a superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects.”

Toward the end of his life, King taught us that our world is rife with various injustices, racism, militarism, poverty, and a culture of competitive materialism, that damage the flourishing of millions of people around the world and are the causes for much misery and anger.

For many of those suffering those conditions, violence seems to be the only way to give voice to their frustrations. King did not mean to justify the use of violence, but only to explain why so many people in despair might be tempted to pick up the gun or the bomb.

Some of the first responders in Boston commented that the scene at the finish line looked like a war-zone. Media commentators pointed out that on the same day that the marathon bombings occurred there were several terrible explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such observations ought not to diminish the pain and suffering of the victims in Boston, but to remind us, as King did in his letter, that there is but a thin veneer of civilization over a world plagued with misery.

The task of people of good conscience, King would counsel, is not to dismiss the perpetrators of violence by pathologizing them as “crazy,” but to take a good, hard look at how the world’s institutions are structured to reward war and aggression.

Terrorists ought to be brought to account and victims deserve compassion; but justice means more than punishment. It also means we have to consider how to think about building a world in which “in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine.”

Jose-Antonio Orosco is Associate Professor of Philosophy and the director of the Peace Studies program at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

5 comments for “Dr. King’s Timeless Call for Justice

  1. elmerfudzie
    April 29, 2013 at 23:39

    I wonder what the American experience would look like today if history was rewritten to exclude black Africans from disembarking onto our shores. What white ethnics would have taken their place to be enslaved and discriminated against, only to be mocked and humiliated as wiggers? How successful would the likes of William Dudley Pelley and his silver legion American fascists have been in penetrating the two party system of congress? You could almost hear the colloquial expression now, Pelleycrats instead of Dixiecrats. Concentration camps instead of internment camps for the Japanese and how many mansions wouldn’t be standing in the deep south today? Black people shouldered the burden, from on-loading bales of wet cotton to defining what constitutes a true democracy. American blacks helped the rest of our citizenry to reevaluate the “leveling principle” so detested by our country’s founding fathers, exposed the farce of creating classes of people based on land ownership, title, skin color and so called “education”. When I pause to look at a picture of MLK these thoughts seem to well up from the unconscious.

  2. rikki
    April 29, 2013 at 11:07

    What is the only difference between a good school and a failing one?

    The good school forces you to speak ENGLISH when you walk in the door…that’s it…everything else is just nibbling around the edges…..and see the results:


    • rosemerry
      April 29, 2013 at 16:54

      What has it to do with the article? it is this arrogance that leads to the divisions seen and explained in the post.

  3. rpdiplock
    April 29, 2013 at 08:43

    How do you equate Louis Farrakhan as being an ‘African’ if he was born and bred in the USA? is that supposed to be some latent Freudian racist slip?

  4. F. G. Sanford
    April 28, 2013 at 12:32

    Breaking News: Terrorism Strikes the Homeland! Georg Elser, a German communist who made his living as a carpenter, was apprehended by Homeland Security after a bomb he planted at the Bürgerbräukeller exploded. Timed to explode during the annual celebration commemorating the birth of the movement, the Führer barely escaped, but seven innocent bystanders were killed. The public is outraged by this wave of terrorism sweeping the Homeland, and fingers are pointing to the need for Homeland Security to crack down on these outrages. Enhanced interrogation has even been suggested, insinuating that the practice of beating suspects with rubber hoses and leather whips is far too lenient to deal with the potential danger of additional “ticking time bombs”. Public outcry for decisive measures to protect our beloved Homeland is being heeded by the authorities, despite insinuations that numerous patsies, dupes, scapegoats and losers have been successfully encouraged to implicate themselves in “sting” operations. Terrorism experts insist that though extremely clever, Elser could not have acted alone. Rejecting claims that the administration’s policies of humanitarian intervention and liberation of oppressive dictatorships could have angered and “radicalized” Elser, they insist he must have been “radicalized” by foreign agents. Not wishing to disappoint the public, Security Chief Himmler directed agents to kidnap two British citizens from Switzerland and charge them with masterminding the plot. They have been indefinitely detained at Dachau, along with Elser. The public is satisfied that the terrorist threat has been stifled. Some called for a jury trial, including informing the suspect of his Miranda rights. Prominent legal expert Alan Dershowitz’s reference to the “ticking time bomb” analogy was cited as sufficient reason to invoke the “Public Safety Exemption”. Prominent Reichspublican Peter King (R-NY) advocated waterboarding, but the Führer’s philosophy of humanitarian treatment of detainees prevailed. Reasoning that there were too many holes in the official story, he deemed it unlikely that Elser could get a fair trial. Elser will be remanded to “protective custody” at Dachau to insure that his civil rights are not violated. Human rights activists are delighted with the Führer’s merciful intervention, but continue to be bewildered that anyone could possibly find motivation to commit an unwarranted terrorist act against the Homeland. These episodes of gratuitous violence and despicable terrorism persist, despite the Homeland’s commitment to make the world safe for our form of government. Tom Brockaw, respected news commentator, opined that the public would now have to resign itself to intrusions on its liberties in order to combat these inexplicable acts. High Fiver!

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