A Grain Of Saul: MLK Did More Than Just 'Promote Equality,' He Demanded That You Act

Don't reduce a great American hero to something as basic as promoting equality.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. today, Americans should remember an uncomfortable truth about what he taught us: that simply saying you support a cause is not enough.

It's easy to say that you "believe in equality" and remember that King also promoted equality. What is harder is to remember that King demanded us to act on those beliefs and explicitly said that "there comes a time when silence is betrayal."


Throughout his time as a civil rights hero, King did more than simply promote certain ideas, as many people celebrating him will say today. He demanded that those ideas become a part of our society. He implored not just people of color, but the "moderate white" men and women to come forward and act. He begged his fellow clergymen to stand with the church and not with the government's unjust laws, to help break down the walls of segregation and to be extremists of love. 

Perhaps none of King's writing is more relevant today than one of his most famous pieces of work: the letter from Birmingham City Jail. In it, King is responding to public critiques of his movement for justice that he's read and heard from fellow clergymen (priests and rabbis across the country). His letter spanned 20 pages and covered how he has led non-violent protests, why he is leading them, and the misconceptions of the movement he's heard from those on the outside of it.

But it also contained some of the most forthright disappointment in White Americans that King ever put down in writing. 

Fortunately, many of King's words are relevant and useful today. So many Americans are willing to criticize the kneeling NFL protestors, actors and musicians of color who use their platforms to talk about racial injustice, or Black Lives Matter protestors who shut down streets during rush hour. Many of these Americans become more enraged by the protests than the reason people are protesting in the first place. 

King addressed the "moderate white" people of his time, writing, "I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress." He wrote, "we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive." He wrote, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

King even supported civil disobedience and wrote at length about the laws that were worth breaking. He echoed St. Augustine's belief that "an unjust law is no law at all." He wrote that "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God" and that a "law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law."

In honoring King today, we should all strive to remember these criticisms of the passive observers and unjust laws. If you truly believe in his message of equality and justice, you must also take account of his deepest concerns: that far too many of us say we believe in a goal for a more equal and just world but do little or nothing to advance it.

You might be thinking to yourself, "OK — I am willing to act, but how?" The good news is there are unlimited examples of how to fight for what you believe in and to fight the injustices you see every day. As former President Barack Obama pointed out, even King "started small" in his fight against injustice.

Some people have gone big in their efforts: I've reported on churches and synagogues that have given sanctuary to undocumented immigrant families who fear deportation to a dangerous homeland. Women across the country have decided to run for office to fight the sexism they've experienced. A man in Illinois defied city orders so he could house homeless men and women with no place to sleep but in the cold. 

Others have performed smaller acts of defiance or kindness. A police officer who caught a teen sneaking into a gym bought him a membership instead of punishing him. Black Lives Matter activists attended a Trump rally and managed to build a bridge instead of forging enemies. King's daughter Bernice has brought his "extremist love" into the modern day, patiently explaining her dad's beliefs to someone on Twitter who tried to "mansplain" them to her.   

You can call your local representatives, volunteer at a local prison, or give a hand to a local shelter. Even speaking out on social media can be an effective way to raise awareness about an issue.

Whatever you do, though, just remember this: if you want to honor Martin Luther King Jr., merely believing in his message is not enough. Silence and inaction, as King reminded us repeatedly, are unacceptable.

You can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter

Cover image via April Sims / Shutterstock.com


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