Using MLK to Quell Outrage Distorts His Legacy

Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, (Credit: Rowland Scherman/National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past week, numerous public officials—faced with disruptive protests around police brutality and racial inequality in the age of COVID—have invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to decry these demonstrations. “This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms claimed, “… A protest has purpose.” Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner followed similar suit: “We have protest, most of it peaceful, and then we have opportunistic crime…Martin Luther King did not do that.”

Such comments fundamentally miss King’s longstanding record calling out police brutality and northern injustice. King took issue with the false discourses of “culture,” “crime,” and “law and order” that had become northerners’ justifications for segregation, inequality, and increased policing in their own cities. He believed in the necessity of disruption and highlighted the tendency to focus on police in the South while ignoring and rationalizing their abuse in the North. Indeed, King has much to say about our contemporary moment, about the persistence of police abuse and the power of disruption, which may account, at least partly, for why this aspect of his politics is considerably less recognized.

From the very beginnings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, King’s critiqued the “both-sides ism” of the North and called “for a liberalism from the North …[that] will not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say: ‘Slow up for a while; you’re pushing too fast.’”

King crisscrossed the country in the early 1960s joining with northern movements against school and housing segregation and police brutality, even as he helped to build SCLC’s campaign across the South. At the 1963 March on Washington, he reminded, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Too often this quote is taken to mean the police in Birmingham and Montgomery—missing that King was also talking about New York, LA, Detroit and beyond.

In 1964, despite calls from moderate white and Black leaders, King refused to condemn Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) proposed stall-in. After campaigns challenging housing segregation, school segregation, and job discrimination garnered little substantive change, the group sought to draw attention to rampant inequality in the city.1 Their plan was to cause disruption by stalling cars on highways leading to the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows—to make it difficult for people to continue to avoid seeing inequality and poverty. Black and white moderates were horrified and furiously attacked the idea, calling on King to do the same. But King refused. “We do not need allies who are more devoted to order than to justice,” King explained. “….I hear a lot of talk these days about our direct action talk alienating former friends. I would rather feel they are bringing to the surface latent prejudices that are already there. If our direct action programs alienate our friends….they never were really our friends.”2

When the police killing of 15-year-old James Powell in Harlem in June 1964 sparked a six-day uprising, King declared what was needed was “an honest, soul-searching analysis and evaluation of the environmental causes which have spawned the riots.” Mayor Robert Wagner invited King to come to NYC to help ease tensions between residents and city leaders. But King was nearly run out of town when he dared to suggest the city would benefit from a Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to oversee the police department.3 Time and again, King was called on to rein in Black people and when he refused and called out policy and politicians instead, they refused to listen.

A similar pattern occurred in LA. King had denounced segregation and police brutality in the city repeatedly in the early 1960s in visits to LA–then the Watts uprising happened and again he called for a CCRB there and again city leaders responded angrily.

In the early 1960s, King made a number of trips to Los Angeles where he stressed “segregation and discrimination here, and police brutality.”4 Shortly after getting out of a Birmingham jail in May 1963, King spoke to crowd of more than thirty-five thousand people at Wrigley Field. “You asked me what Los Angeles can do to help us in Birmingham,” he told the audience. “The most important thing that you can do is to set Los Angeles free because you have segregation and discrimination here, and police brutality.”5

King knew of the movement around police brutality in the city had escalated after the 1962 police killing of Nation of Islam (NOI) secretary Ronald Stokes. Even before Stokes was killed, the NAACP had repeatedly brought tabulations of police brutality to the city’s attention. After Stokes’ death, NOI members, the NAACP, local Black leaders and many Black community members joined together to press for justice. But the police and city leadership were intransigent, blaming Black Angelenos for the problem.

Many white Angelenos labeled him a Communist for this work, picketing the SCLC’s western office with signs reading “King Has Hate, Does Travel” and “Thank God for [LAPD Police] Chief Parker.”6

After the Watts uprising, King came to LA because city leaders wanted him to ease tensions. And just as in New York the summer before, he called for a CCRB. The suggestion was angrily shot down by Police Chief William Parker, while LA’s Mayor Sam Yorty accused King of advocating Black “lawlessness”7

Three months after the Watts uprising, King took to the pages of the Saturday Review to challenge northern ‘shock’ around the uprisings, given the long history of Black grievance and protests in LA and other northern cities. King zeroed in on the differential outrage around police brutality between the South and North: “As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated, and usually denied.” King was clear that this pattern of police brutality had been highlighted long before the uprising—and movements built around it. But public attention focused on the South while Black northerners were blamed for their behaviors which necessitated strong-arm policing.

Upending the idea of the criminal, King reframed the question by highlighting how white illegality produced northern ghettos: “When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out …he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services.”8 King made clear that the police were not there to protect or serve the Black community. In other words, King took issue with liberal approaches to inequality, advanced by social scientists, journalists, city leaders, and white residents, which focused on Black people and their “cultural responses,” rather than policies and actions by white citizens and officials that sustained racial injustice. And he called out the cynicism and dishonesty of focusing on Black crime.

He took the fight directly to the people who produced knowledge about and policies for Black citizens. In a scathing address to the American Psychological Association in 1967, King zeroed in on the false discourses that allowed northerners to ignore and justify inequality and police brutality at home: “All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions—the Negro himself.”

King continued, “The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society…The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society.”9

To use King to quell the outrage of this moment is not only a misunderstanding of King and his work—but also a mangling of some of his most powerful ideas. Across his shortened life, King not only called out unjust policing but also zeroed in on the false discourses that allowed Americans, even liberal friends, to justify them. Allies are not allies who are more devoted to order than to justice. Today’s protestors—Black activists, community members and multicultural friends are in fact carrying forward the spirit of King– acting with renewed determination and disruptive urgency to finally end police violence.

  1. For more on Brooklyn CORE and the stall-in, see Brian Purnell, Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings.
  2. George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 82.
  3. Peniel Joseph, Waiting for the Midnight Hour (New York; Henry Holt, 2006), 111.
  4. Marnesba Tackett, interview by Michael Balter, 1988, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Special Collections.
  5. Tackett interview; “Greatest Freedom Rally Here Nets Heroes Over $75,000” Los Angeles Sentinel, May 30, 1963.
  6. “Hate Picket Thank God for Chief Parker,” California Eagle, May 7, 1964.
  7. Joseph, Sword and Shield, 244-245.
  8. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement,” American Psychological Association, September 1967. Full text of this speech can be found on the APA website.
  9. King, “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist.”
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Jeanne Theoharis

Jeanne Theoharis is the Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. Her research centers on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the politics of race and education, social welfare and civil rights in post-9/11 America. She is the editor of several books and the author of the award-winning books 'The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks; (2013) and 'More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History' (2018). Follow her on Twitter @JeanneTheoharis.

Comments on “Using MLK to Quell Outrage Distorts His Legacy

  • Avatar

    Thank you for this article. So many people invoke the name and the legacy of MLK when the only thing they know about him is “I Have A Dream”. It’s extremely frustrating and I was happy to have this article to read and to share with my family and friends who have much learning to do.

  • Avatar

    Such a powerful quote to make visible now: “The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty….The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society.”9 Thank you for this critical and helpful piece.

Comments are closed.