Protest violence and Martin Luther King’s dream

We gave Martin Luther King, Jr., a holiday and put his dream on the shelf. That often happens when those who led from the margins are officially recognized.

Because of the role he played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, MLK is now studied in school. So, I got to spend a lot of time reading and rereading his “I Have A Dream” speech to help my 15-year-old daughter write a paper on it. Spending all that time with the speech had a profound effect on me.

I’m convinced that MLK would be deeply disappointed by the violent protests that have followed the deaths of black men at the hands of police that have made the news recently. For MLK, maintaining the moral high ground was an absolute necessity. Without the moral high ground, his objectives could not be achieved.

In the speech, MLK declared: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

He wasn’t naive. He expected violence. But he insisted that the violence not be committed by those seeking the goal of his dream.

And what was the goal of his dream? It wasn’t revenge. It was brotherhood.

The key word in MLK’s Dream speech isn’t equality, it’s brotherhood. When the playing field is terribly off-kilter, equality is a move in the right direction. But equality isn’t the goal. It’s too mathematical and non-relational to be the goal. (See Equality: a poor substitute for love) The goal is a justice that leads to brotherhood, a flourishing of relationships.

Unfortunately, unwarranted violence against black men by both civilians and police has led to an increased desire for retributive violence, for revenge. But revenge is the farthest thing from brotherhood there is. Instead, revenge begets more revenge and the further breakdown of relationships.

So, what we’ve got now is angry white people, venting on Facebook about black thugs running wild in Baltimore. Who wins here? Both the vandalism and the self-righteous postings take us further from MLK’s dream that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

For us as a nation to return to MLK’s great dream, there needs to be a commitment to seek justice, to prove that black lives matter, to prosecute those who mistreat and kill black men. At the same time, there needs to be an end to violent protest, to calls for revenge.

The high moral ground must be retaken. The dream of brotherhood requires it.

[Here is the entirety of MLK’s incredible speech. It is worth reading and rereading by every American.]

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