Yesterday would have been Martin Luther King Jr’s 83rd birthday, had he not been assassinated April 4th 1968. Speaking at Occupy London on December 15th last year, Reverand Jesse Jackson, who was with Martin Luther King as he died said: Gandhi was an occupier, he marched the sea protesting colonialism. Dr. King was an occupier, Mandela an occupier. They are all exalted as Martyrs now but rejected as occupiers, as protesters, as radicals; called terrorist by governments.
Today, the US celebrates Martin Luther King Jr day, a hard won public holiday to remember the man, and more importantly, the message. Soundbites and platitudes roll out across the corporate media on the same channels which hold Occupy, today’s MLK, in contempt. Today’s article discusses how the real tributes to the work of MLK are not to be found on CNN, but in Occupy camps and Occupied buildings across the world.
Montgomery: The Boycott that Nearly Wasn’t
First and foremost, MLK was not a prophet or a saint, but a mortal human being with a compelling message. MLK was calling for equality, regardless of race. This challenged the contemporary status quo – which was that people are not born equal, that a black person was, by virtue of their colour, subject to restrictions on their liberty, expression and access to power, services and opportunity. His message – obvious to many today, was radical at the time. It was not received as sage and pertinent, but dangerous and ‘utopian’.
On December 1st 1955, Rosa Parks (pictured above) refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. At this time, the Jim Crow laws were in operation segregating people by race in public spaces. Classrooms, washrooms, buses. On this day, Rosa Parks (not merely a poor seamstress, but a seasoned activist and member of the NAACP) made a stand and was promptly arrested for it. On the back of this, a boycott was called for and the next day, the buses were empty.
Now, this could have been one single, symbolic day of protest for the African American community. A small success against an unbeatable, unchangeable status quo. In fact, there was almost overwhelming pressure, not just from white people, but from within the local black community itself, to stop at that.
It took the argument of recently elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association – MLK, and other progressive members to move things forward. ED Nixon, outraged by the supine calls for quits, stood to speak at the meeting to decide whether to continue the boycott:
"What's the matter with you people? Here you have been living off the sweat of these washerwomen all these years and you have never done anything for them. Now you have a chance to pay them back, and you're too damn scared to stand on your feet and be counted! The time has come when you men is going to have to learn to be grown men or scared boys.”
The decision was taken to continue and extend the bus boycott. The call came to boycott the city buses until a black person could sit in any seat they wanted. There had been bus boycotts by black people before, in Baton Rouge and elsewhere with limited wins. But they did it anyway. Black cab driver dropped their fees to ten cents of bus boycotters. The city officials countered by making it illegal for a cab driver to charge less than 45 cents. So black people started car pooling instead. The city officials met with Black ministers who were not from the MIA, who agreed to compromise and released a false report to the media that the boycott was over. Finally, they resorted to violence with both Dr King and E D Nixon having their homes fire bombed. The media were cumbersome or ambivalent in their coverage.
Next, the law was used to attempt to suppress the boycott. On one day in February 1956, 89 black people were arrested, using old law prohibiting boycotts. Dr King was one of the first defendants to be tried, he was found guilty and ordered to pay $500 fines, plus $500 court costs or face a custodial sentence of over a year.
But the boycott continued. In fact, black people were not back on the buses until December 21st 1956, a whole year since the beginning of the boycott. They had gone to the Supreme Court and the buses were now desegregated. But they would never have got their case heard, made it into the hearts of some watching white and black people, if they had not maintained the pressure through civil disobedience and boycott.
Then the next battle could begin – they actually needed to face the KKK, snipers and other vigilante pressure groups and individuals who attempted to stop them taking their seats on the bus.
By making their stand, in the face of overwhelming opposition, the boycotters proved that you could galvanise a large group of people, over an extended period of time into an inconvenient action and leverage that into results. It was a demonstration of what could be, if people only stood up for themselves.
We can learn alot from the bus boycott. Imagine E D Nixon addressing a global audience of the 99% today.
If You Can’t Shut em up, Lock em up
Each step forward for the Civil Rights Movement, and MLK’s personal commitment to it, saw pressure from outside and within to stop, be happy with what they had achieved to date and stop pushing the envelope.
Throughout the 1950’s and early 60’s protest and civil disobedience were utilised over and over to create a tension which forced society to address issues head on. The protest made the civil rights inequalities unignorable to people who would otherwise have been easily able to ignore it. However, unable to face the unease and dreaming of a quiter life, some will argue that the tension is, in itself, reason to cease.
After his arrest during the Birmingham, Alabama protests in 1963, MLK was in prison and picked up his newspaper only to read a statement issued by 8 white Alabama clergymen entitled ‘A Call for Unity’. The statement called the protests ‘unwise and untimely’, called King an outside agitator, and whilst acknowledging inequalities, stated that these should be handled solely in the courts and not the streets.
Martin Luther King Jr proceeded to write his open letter from Birmingham jail. This letter should be read, in full, by every human being on earth. It is one of the stand out testimonies for non violent civil disobedience ever to be written, and the origin of one of his most oft-referenced quotes ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.
Now, anyone familiar with the recent news cycle, occupier or not, will be aware of exactly the arguments of those Alabama clergymen in 1963. They are falling from the mouths of pundits, politicians and passersby on a daily basis.
The video below is a re-enactment of both the clergy letter, and MLK’s response, take the time out of your life to watch it and ponder. I’ve not yet found a sensible human being which, looking back on history, would have wanted to be talking down the civil rights movement. But I meet many people today who talk down Occupy. These people would have been saying the same in 1963, in 1956 and in any point in history where someone challenged the status quo. Some people say can't when they mean won't. Some people won't change the world as they percieve themselves as having too much vested in it to take the risk. Some people are inspired but really don’t think it possible for the world to change. Others just get in with changing it.
The time, patience and commitment of those who are standing for a world impossible in the minds of others – makes that world possible.
Dare to Dream
In August of that same year, MLK gave a 17 minute speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, addressing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Over 300,000 people stood in demonstration for a better world. This was the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
I was in an English Literature lesson, and 14 years old, the first time I saw the speech in full. My teacher at the time, Mrs Rogers, pulled in a television and a fuzzy black and white image played across the screen. I knew what the speech was about and had heard it referenced a lot as a child, but never actually heard it fully. I started to cry about a minute into the speech, and I didn’t stop crying for a good five minutes after it had finished. I might have been embarrassed but I wasn’t alone. This class full of white kids and me, in a comprehensive school in Bristol, England were moved to tears by the words of a black man speaking to us from 1963.
I understood, even at fourteen, that if those words and that dream could bring me to tears 30 years hence, just what it might have felt to have heard those words in 1963. MLK was not talking in his own time. He talking from the future, where his dream had been achieved, to the crowds in 1963 where it was not. He wasn’t describing a possible world; he was creating it in the minds of every person listening. He was not detailing the world as it was, but as it would be with the courage and conviction of the people who compose it.
But Martin Luther King didn’t give the I Have a Dream Speech in 1955, nor did he need to. He developed his dream for the world, and his ability to articulate it. It took the struggles, the victories, the jail time and the air time, the eight years between 1955 and 1963 for the world to even be able to hear the I Have a Dream Speech, let alone for MLK to write it.
He doesn’t even begin to articulate the dream until 12 minutes into the speech. Why? Because before you can create something new, you have to know what you have already. You also need to have consensus that your view of the current state of the world is a fair account.
The Occupy Movement isn’t even 8 months old, let alone eight years. It may take a lot longer than that to get to even the articulation of the dream of the world we want to create. Each individual person engaged with Occupy is going through a process of seeing the world as it is, of identifying the injustices and the inequalities, of connecting with their fellow human beings in a new way.
But we know that today, it is clear the overall aims of the Occupy movement are broadly a world of full equality- racial, sexual, gender, social, political, economic– and lived in harmony with the planet.
This dream has already been enough to have brought people across the world onto the streets and into their own self built communities of tent cities, to coordinate a new future now. The Occupy Movement, like the civil rights movement refuses to be satisfied with compromises or tolerant of injustice and inequality in the world, and has the audacity to stand in the face of it and implore people to be another way.
A Stand Bigger than Your Own Existence
On 3rd April 1968, just the day before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr gave his final speech at Mason Temple, in Memphis Tennessee. This speech was The Mountaintop Speech. In this eerily prescient speech, Dr King talks of the movement continuing to the proverbial mountaintop though he might not make it to see the day.
His final speech was in support of striking sanitation workers. He was talking about freedom. He was talking about the importance of making your stand non-violently. He sweeps across time and space creating in the mind a sensation of historical momentum. A tide, of which each person present is a water drop, surging forward to wash away the defunct ways of the world, making way for the new.
For all occupiers, this one message might be the most important. Change won’t come in a day, but it will come one day.
The next day, while standing on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, in the company of Jess Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King was shot and killed.
Yet the civil rights movement didn’t stop. The movement for equality did not die on the balcony in Memphis. You can’t kill an idea. Neither can you evict one.
Aint Nothin’ Duller than a Naysayer
The real lesson to be learned from Martin Luther King Jr is that you don’t wait for the world to change. Equality is not achieved through positive thought and wishes. It is envisioned, dreamed of, fought for, won and then maintained. Not overnight, but over decades. Over centuries. Over millennia. So, whilst we look to Martin Luther King Jr, he is looking at us. He is looking to us to carry on to the Mountaintop, to be the dreamers, the orators, the protestors and the boycotters of our moment in history. We are it. We are all there is. So, for all those today who stand before Occupy and say the world is the way the world is, that our dreams are quaint, dangerous, ridiculous or impossible, that we need to grow up, get a job or take a bath – I have just this to say – there aint nothin' duller than a naysayer.
There is no more fitting dedication to Martin Luther King Jr and his work, than for that work to be honoured. It is not honoured by clinging to the status quo, it is not honoured by tolerating, excusing or rationalising injustice and inequality, and it is not honoured by ignorance. We best honour the stand of MLK and the millions of others in history - that the world this generation lives in is free of some of the iniquities of the last - by ensuring the same for the generation to come.
It is honoured in the rallies and the speeches, and it is honoured in the moments of quiet fortitude. It is honoured in those daily choices of courage over convenience. It is honoured in our communication of ideas, and our love and compassion for every human being, plant and animal that shares this planet with us. There were far more Birmingham City Jail days, than Lincoln Memorial days - know this when the chips are down and all seems lost.
Wherever you spend Martin Luther King Jr day, spend it well and know that tomorrow is every bit as important.