Ferguson has become the epicenter of protests on racial stigma of police officers that have spread across the nation. Much like Birmingham, Alabama was 50 years ago for civil rights of blacks at large. But in both cases there were many who believed that the protests and the ensuing violence were not justified. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the Civil Rights Movement gave his formula of where “direct action” was vindicated. Let’s compare to see if Birmingham and the protests against police racial violence fall in that category.
Dr. King mentions that for any campaign it is first important to define whether injustices occur and then enter into negotiations. Starting with the definition, Birmingham, Alabama has had an ugly history of racial injustices and brutality, something that was acknowledged as well by the white clergymen that MLK was writing to. As far as negotiations go, King also mentions that he had advocated for and taken part in previous negotiations, but all it led to was “broken promises” on the behalf of the opposition.
On the other hand in Ferguson, police records show that there is almost a 1:9 ratio in the amount of searches, stops and arrests that whites face vs. the amounts that blacks face. And it isn’t just about one town either. Recently the nation was rattled by the shooting of Travyon Martin in Florida, and across the nation police have entered into armed conflict white black youths 7 -10 times more than with white youths. And after each instance, there has been a call for dealing with police violence. In fact even in his letter which was written, 51 years ago, Dr. King calls for the clergymen to take action against the “ugly and inhumane” behavior of the Birmingham police department against young blacks. Across this span of time there have been many talks, yet the statistics remain the same. So regardless of the evidence present in one grand jury decision, statistics show that there is a racial stigma in law enforcement against black youths, and diplomatic negotiation has not changed that fact. So the first two parts of Dr. King’s methodology has aligned with the protests in Ferguson, but the last step, direction action is a bit more complex.
On the surface, Dr. King wholeheartedly is against violent forms of direct action. He says that if violent protest had prevailed “by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.” In his letter he specifically condemns the Black Panthers and other black nationalist organizations who are willing to use violence to achieve their goals. We have seen Ferguson erupt into riots, fires and widespread looting. Protestors have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails at civilians, and the police have had to use to tear gas back on them. Seeing this, Martin Luther King III, son of Dr. King, came out and said that his father would have sternly been against the violence of this protest.
But there is another aspect. In the recent days, many have come out and criticized the people in Ferguson by calling them “extremist protestors.” While this label may seem at first negative, Dr. King goes deeper into it’s analysis. He points out that in some sense, Jesus, St. Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan and Thomas Jefferson, people who who we revere today, were all extremists for they stood against their oppressors for their own beliefs. Taking this a step further, the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence and Shay’s Rebellion could all be viewed as acts of extremism. But for better or for worse each and every single one of them has played a key part in the founding of this nation.So the question then is “not whether or not we will be extremists…but whether we will be extremists for hate or love?”
An analysis of Dr. King’s letter shows that the people of Ferguson, and those voicing their opinion across the nation for reducing police stigma, have a claim to injustices and have waited so long for peaceful negotiation that it is time for direct action. And in this direct action they can rightly be extremists for their cause. They can march, protest, boycott, and make their voice heard. But this interpretation shows that they just should not be extremists for the sake of revenge, for that road leads to nowhere.