† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
by nancy a heitzeg
In anticipation of the National Holiday bearing his name, Ferguson Action announced their intention to #ReclaimMLK; “Unfortunately, Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize it. Impulses to remove Dr. King from the movement that elevated him must end. We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless women and men into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits .”
The Radical King was a tactical genius in the implementation of targeted direct action campaigns, a civil disobedient – a breaker of unjust laws who expected – no wanted – to go to jail, and at times, as Joy James reminds us, a political prisoner. Often lost in the discussion is this: that famous letter from Birmingham was written from jail. The Radical King was a democratic socialist, an intersectional analyst who linked white supremacy and capitalism, a critic of war and U.S. imperialism, and a proponent of a revolution of values. Who knows — had he lived long enough, he may well have found himself an advocate too for prison abolition.
But what does it mean to #ReclaimKing at this moment? 2015 is not 1965. Ferguson is not Birmingham; Staten Island is not Selma. The Radical King must be fully embraced with a complete and nuanced understanding of his time and context as well as our own.
No, the legacy of King and the Civil Rights Movement can no longer be sanitized, but it cannot be uncritically, causally reclaimed either. In embracing the full complexity, we must not adhere only to the metaphor, but also the hard realities. Protest is essential, but it cannot be mere performance and it is never, by itself, enough. We must develop the long-haul strategies that make for success; that take into account the systems of power which we are engaging. We must not be naive; if power is confronted, it will strike back. This is part of the turf, however vengeful and unjust it may seem. This was the brilliance of King and the CRM: the strategies anticipated and, in fact, relied on excessive responses that revealed the contradictions between legal “justice” and the violence that is inflicted by the state.
The radical vision demands so much more of us. It demands a lifetime commitment and a willingness to risk – everything if need be – with the expectation of the powerful backlash. This must be factored into our work – not because we are martyrs, but because we are savvy and delusion free. The test will be how we can walk into the center of the storms in our own era, stand through them, and see our way to the other side.
Last week I was in downtown Oakland, in the midst of 96 hours of MLK Weekend Action, and as usual, the movement there said it/did best. A coterie of marchers appeared and delivered this chant – not a call to reclaim and then repossess – but this:
Read that Letter again with this in mind.