Opinion: MLK taught us to commit ourselves to peace, equality

Andrew Fink

As we remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we have an opportunity not only to reflect on the monumental change he influenced on our country and the world, but truths that he expounded which are as true now as they were in the 1960s.

In August 1963, King was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama. While there, he penned his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he explained his thinking about how to confront the injustice that Black Americans were facing every day, which he called “a notorious reality.” Author Shelby Steele has similarly described the civil rights era as a daily engagement in “noble fights against an enemy that was everywhere.”

King’s letter was partially a defense of his belief that nonviolent protests were necessary to create a kind of tension that would allow America to confront segregation. Without that tension, King thought, the reality of racism wouldn’t be brought into the sharp relief that “sit-ins, marches, and so forth” produced. 

King draws directly on the moral and intellectual traditions which informed the American founding, Fink writes.

Today we do not need a strategy to create tension. The tension is all around us. So what can we learn from King and the successes of the civil rights era about recognizing the tension and using it to move toward a more perfect union?

An observation frequently made about the letter is that King draws directly on the moral and intellectual traditions which informed the American founding, and even on the founding itself. King famously refers to St. Augustine, Socrates, St. Thomas Aquinas, both the Old Testament and the words of Jesus, as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

King demonstrated that the injustices he saw were denying citizens their equal rights, specifically the rights to peaceably assemble and to vote, which could not be justified by reason or tradition.

Those rights, and the others guaranteed by our Constitution, are what allow us to be truly citizens and not subjects, living according to the arbitrary dictates of the state. The right to speak, alone or in a group, and to vote for those who form our representative government is the only way by which we can say our system depends on the consent of the governed.

Through our Constitution we are granted the right to be a part of the process, to take a seat at the table, by electing leaders and sharing our voice with them.

King’s message displayed the value of nonviolent action to present the case that not all American citizens were being treated as though they were created equal with their neighbors. King recognized that violence only amplifies hostilities — it is an illegitimate means to producing long-term political change — and that the government’s suppression of the people is unacceptable, and the sit-ins and marches helped to demonstrate that millions of Americans were not being heard or respected by their government.

The civil rights movement, and King in particular, showed the illogic and brutality of the Jim Crow era by displaying the ways in which men who are created equal with one another were not being treated equally by their government.

In other words, their citizenship was an idea, but not a reality.

We must commit ourselves to peace and never the violent antics of mobs and riots. And we must commit ourselves to freedom of thought and to respect one another as full and equal citizens, entitled to the rights described in the Declaration of Independence and protected by our Constitution.

The legacy of respecting the rights of all citizens is stronger because of King and the work he did.

State Rep. Andrew Fink, R-Hillsdale, represents Michigan's 58th District in the the Michigan House of Representatives.