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The Roles of Peaceful Protest and White Violence in the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By Denne Michele Norris, she/they

In June of 2020, I wrote about the shock of witnessing global engagement around issues of racism, and the harm of white supremacy upon black bodies. I wrote about the dissonance of George Floyd’s death at the hand of police brutality, a death that was eerily similar to that of Eric Garner, a mere six years prior. I wrote about the cynicism of my own reaction, how I doubted the engagement for anyone beyond Black people would last more than a few weeks. And yet, I also wrote about the stirrings of hope, the feeling that perhaps, the timing of this case might allow for the global movement to happen, and for accountability and equal protection under the law to be at the forefront of society’s collective consciousness. At the time, I also wondered what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would think of everything that was happening. I imagined disappointment at how far we still had to go. I imagined pride in the activists of today, and in the global reach of our cries for equality. Two things can be true at once.

During that time, there were memes and Facebook statuses shared by white people in my social network that asked us to be more like Dr. Martin Luther King. They did what they always do: chastised protestors, asking us to find another way to air our grievances. They, rather ironically, named Dr. King as the standard by which we should measure ourselves. They echoed his calls for peaceful, dignified protest. Some of them felt the need to use their social media platforms to remind us that all lives matter. Reading these posts felt like reading a bastardization of Dr. King’s legacy, and I wanted to throw my phone at the wall more than once. 

The thing about Dr. King that we most like to remember is his optimism. As a child, I was taught about the peaceful protests he orchestrated: lunch counter sit-ins and marches filled with Black church-goers in suits and hats, holding hands and singing spirituals. These lessons were somber, but never scary or intense. When I was older, my eighth grade Civics class did a more in-depth unit on the Civil Rights movement. We learned more about what actually happened at those sit-ins and marches: how protestors were beaten, violently arrested, and sometimes killed. We safely acted out scripted simulations and practiced resisting violent response from white people who opposed the movement, just as historical civil rights activists had. And when I was in high school, I took a class called Gandhi, King, and Conflict Resolution in which I first learned that Dr. King’s intention was to shine a light on the white violence that already existed, and on the Black bodies that were subject to it. Dr. King understood that this strategy was the only way to get white Americans to face themselves, their history, and their rage. The mirror had to be held to their faces. They had to see it for themselves, and not be able to turn their heads away from it. 

When people talk about Dr. King, extolling the message of peaceful protest, they only tell half the story, despite his intent to position peaceful protest on the part of Black and white protestors in direct contrast to the establishment response, which was most often, rage. And white violence, stemming from rage, is the part of the story that is most often erased. White violence is as old a tale as any in America. It’s reliable, not subtle, and doesn’t need much provocation. Dr. King, like most Black people, was keenly aware of this. He knew that by putting Black bodies in spaces we were not supposed to be in, he was expecting white violence. He lured it from hiding, and he did so on a global stage. National media covered the Children’s Crusade of 1963, when thousands of Black children and young adults marched to Birmingham City Hall and had fire hoses and police attack dogs released against them by Bull Connor, the city’s commissioner for public safety. Americans were horrified. A year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

Now, it feels like we’re moving backwards, like perhaps time is proving itself to be non-linear. On Wednesday, January 6th, my sister texted me a photo of a white insurrectionist on the Senate floor. She asked me if we were living in the 19th century. Once again, extreme white violence was on display for the world to see, and it was provoked by nothing other than the loss of their preferred candidate in an election, which they believe was unfair. Innocent Black people are dying on an almost daily basis, have been for generations, and yet we could never come close to executing a demonstration like what we saw from Trump supporters, or calling for the violence they called for. 

In my view, there are two sides to Dr. King’s legacy: there is the peaceful side, but there is also the violent side that he endured—the side that white people never seem to see. There is the conscious decision to lay our Black bodies on the line, to put ourselves in danger, in hopes that people would wake up. There is trauma wrapped up in that history. But what permeates both sides of Dr. King’s legacy is truth-telling. He was clear-eyed in his vision, and he suffered from no misimpression. I can't help but wish for his honesty again, his insight, at this moment—when we need it as deeply as we ever have—if we have any hope, as a country, of healing.

Written by Denne Michele Norris for Youth To The People

Read more by Denne Michele Norris here, and for resources on becoming actively anti-racist, click here.