From Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality to the March for Our Lives rallies for gun control, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be “proud” of young people’s activism taking place 50 years after he was killed, a noted historian says.
Brenda Tindal, director of education at the Detroit Historical Society, joined Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia to discuss some of the key turning points in King’s civil rights activism and draw parallels between the late 1960s and today. Below are highlights.
Significance of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail
Brenda Tindal: The idea is that even if you’re not the arbiter of racism, even if you’re not the arbiter of injustice, there is some harm being done to you as well — when you’re complicit in exercising racism or you’re complicit in not addressing issues that impact all of humanity.
In some regards, what’s critical about that letter, in my view, has a lot to do with the kinds of critiques that he leverages there. He’s not just critiquing the staunch racists, he’s also critiquing white moderates. Not doing anything doesn’t move society forward in any productive manner.
King ‘wasn’t alone’
Tindal: Dr. King wasn’t singular in his effort. In fact, I think one of the arguments is that we should be focusing on the masses of people, the community that was deeply involved in moving his efforts forward. When we think about his work in Montgomery or Memphis or even in Chicago, there were a number of people and community members who were deeply engaged and moving the needle on civil and human rights matters. Dr. King happened to be really the voice of that work, but it took a village to move that work forward.
Coretta Scott King’s critical role
Tindal: Coretta Scott King was deeply engaged in social justice work even before she met and married Dr. King. And beyond that, when you think about the breadth of her work — both as a partner in the civil rights movement and after his assassination — Coretta Scott King was in the vanguard of preserving his memory and continuing her own social justice ministry.
And I would argue that if you look at all of the movements that evolved in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Coretta Scott King was front and center: the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-war movement, women’s rights, the peace movement. There’s not a struggle that Coretta Scott King was not engaged in.
How people viewed King’s shift in focus
Tindal: As King moved his work to the northern and urban enclaves, redirecting some of his attention from the South to the North, I do think that that probably endangered, in some people’s imagination, his work in the realm of civil rights.
But also his critique of the Vietnam War was discouraged by many. Many people thought it would make him a pariah, of sorts, within the U.S. and also that it was suggestive of his radicalization in a particular way, which during that time, may have been demonized. He’d already been situated in some radical ways, which I think jeopardized his message for some adherence.
King’s influence on today’s activists
Tindal: While we have his words and his good work, I think it’s powerful to also have his example be demonstrated by all of the mobilization efforts taking place. And most importantly, being able to see young people really becoming a part of the vanguard of the social reform efforts today. I think King would be proud to know that folks are still very much engaged in challenging situations and discourses that do not serve humanity.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview, which was adapted for the web by Arionne Nettles.