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To Tell the Truth
Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life to the battle for equality and justice. He reminds us of the need to search our own souls for racism and seek change.
Permit me to be brief on this Martin Luther King Day about one of our country’s most revered heroes. It’s important to remember how much disapproval—indeed hatred—he confronted in his own time. As late as 1968, the year he died, nearly 75 percent of Americans rejected him.
The reasons for that are many, including virulent racism and his growing criticism of economic inequality and the Vietnam War. But it also stemmed from his determination to tell the truth, no matter the pushback. Following his assassination, nearly a third of Americans felt he “brought it on himself.”
At this time when white supremacist violence is on the rise and Republicans are bent on blocking the honest study of the history of slavery and the reality of structural racism and white privilege, it’s worth noting a few expressions from Dr. King which make clear his understanding of the position Blacks face in a white-dominated society.
“Justice for black people will not flow into this society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory…White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” King wrote this in an essay published in 1969 titled “A Testament of Hope.”
As much as he spoke out about police brutality and other acts of violent racial injustice, King also had hard words for a white America that chose to do nothing. That is, silence equals complicity.
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it,” King said. “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
He wrote those words in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom, an indication of his commitment to speak the truth, no matter how much discomfort it caused. A decade later, in a taped interview in London, he clearly articulated the responsibility of the white community to confront its own racism.
“It is very important for every white person to search his own soul and seek to remove all the vestiges of racism and white supremacy,” he said in 1968. “But along with that must be concrete justice, that the white person and the white power structure will go out to establish.”
These are hard things. A half century later, when hate crimes are on the rise and an aggrieved white population complains they are being “replaced” by people of color, it’s easy to understand why so many among us have chosen to stay out of the battle.
But on this day, let’s remember the man who gave his own life, knowing that it’s necessary to make others uncomfortable to drive change. “True peace,” he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, “is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”