MLK Day, 2022

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

[From “Letter from Birmingham Jail” source]

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When MLK began rhetorically linking the black American’s struggle for justice with other struggles against injustice worldwide, I believe that is when he sealed his fate. He was, evermore, a threat to the establishment.

I highly recommend I Am Not Your Negro, [amz] the brilliant documentary about James Baldwin’s notes from the middle of the civil rights movement. Samuel L. Jackson’s voice narration is incredible, too; I used to think he was overrated but it spun me 180 degrees into fandom. Like much of Baldwin, it’s powerful, oblique, brilliant, thought-through. I Am Not Your Negro ties together the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X at the point where they meet, and explores Baldwin’s thoughts upon their untimely deaths.

I know that right now the forces of reaction are scrambling to tell white people, “it’s OK, feel no guilt for what happened” but I don’t think a person can be fully empathic, fully human, and not understand the tremendous burden that white America needs to shut the fuck up, shoulder, and carry.


  1. Allison says

    feel no guilt for what happened

    I don’t feel guilt — I didn’t set up the system, and besides, “white guilt” is a convenient way of making it all about white folks’ delicate psyches, rather than about the people who are actually being oppressed.

    I do feel responsible, though, since as a white person my voice will be heard in a way that no Black person’s will, and I personally enjoy a level of privilege that gives me more power than the average person’s. (If I can only figure out how to apply it….)

    “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” [Slogan popular in my youth.]

    “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” [Desmond Tutu]

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