Dr. King and #TimesUp: 4 Reflections on MLK, Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail

In celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, Dr. Donnelly has already spoken about Dr. King as a pastor and leader. Since I (Dr. Hinson) am the resident expert on prison experiences at AR HQ, I have decided to reflect on one of his most famous pieces of writing, his letter from a Birmingham jail. During his weeklong incarceration on the charge of unlawful protesting in April 1963, Dr. King responded to a letter written and co-signed by eight Alabama clergymen, who claimed that his protests in the city were "unwise and untimely." If you have never had the honor of reading Dr. King's entire letter, the University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center can help you out. 

 Image Credit:  Awesome Stories

Image Credit: Awesome Stories

In my research and work with formerly incarcerated people, I often had discussions with them about how they "passed the time" in prison. For many, the time spent away from free society allowed for periods of reflection. In reading Dr. King's letter I was not surprised to find he felt the same. While defending the length of the letter, Dr. King asked, "what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?"

Reading through his "long thoughts" in preparation for this post, I was struck by how often his words reminded me of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. One of the enduring legacies of Dr. King's words is that they are broadly applicable to many situations of injustice or discrimination. For this post, I'll be using four excerpts and drawing connections with recent conversations about systemic gender discrimination, harassment, and violence. 

1. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Perhaps one of the more frequently quoted lines from the letter, when I read this section I thought of how leading actors in the #TimesUp movement brought prominent activists as their guests in order to highlight how we all live in a deeply engrained culture of silencing, shaming, and disenfranchising women who are abused. The purpose of bringing Mónica Ramírez, Ai-jen Poo, Billie Jean King, Rosa Clemente, Marai Larasi, Tarana Burke, Calina Lawrence, and Saru Jayaraman was to highlight how these issues effect women around the world and in every profession. They embodied the words of Dr. King, showing that injustice against women anywhere is a threat to justice and equality everywhere. 

  Actors and activists at the 75th Annual Golden Globes.  Image Credit:  The Huffington Post

Actors and activists at the 75th Annual Golden Globes. Image Credit: The Huffington Post

2. "I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth." While explaining the necessity of non-violent direct action in the Birmingham protests, Dr. King defended the tension that arises from taking action. One could argue that the #TimesUp movement, one precipitated on combining words and action, has created tension, certainly within the entertainment industry, if not others. This tension was palpable during the broadcast of the 75th Annual Golden Globes on January 7th. Yet, this tension is necessary, and though it may be uncomfortable, it is constructive and has the potential to inspire growth and change. 

3. Further into the letter, Dr. King expresses critiques of the white moderate "who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." From my perspective, it seems as though there are still a lot of people who believe this reckoning on harassment culture will be short and sweet. That we can move quickly from this period of taking and assigning responsibility, to a period of negative peace, free from this uncomfortable tension. But the real fixes for these problems (if there are fixes at all) have been in the works for decades, and will take many, many decades more to reach the ultimate goal of a positive peace. 

4. "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?" Responding to the claim that the actions in Birmingham were extreme, Dr. King wrote at length about the history of extremism both in America and Christianity. As the Civil Rights movement was a defining moment in our nation's history for the ongoing struggle for racial equality and justice, I feel the current movements addressing gender violence and inequality represent another defining moment. The question now remains whether we will choose the path of extreme love or hate. Will we fight for "preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?" 

The work ahead of us is complicated and hard. I do not believe we have yet been able to use Dr. King's inspirational words to achieve the racial equality and justice that was his life's work. During her acceptance speech for winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, Laura Dern spoke about a culture of silencing that has been normalized. Many women who spoke up that night, talked about changing those norms. We have lived far too long in a culture where inequality and injustice have been normalized. Dr. King spoke and wrote so powerfully about tackling the normalization of segregation and discrimination, and therefore, through using his words to speak toward another movement for justice, I have attempted to honor his legacy.