Dr. King, Haiti, and extreme social activism

Filed under: Featured,Haiti |

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. ~ Dr. Martin Luter King, Jr. A Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I take time on Dr. King’s birthday, ever year, to re-familiarize myself with why he was such an exceptional leader, revolutionary, social activist, minister and man.  We all, I believe are well versed on his accomplishments in the Black American struggle for human rights, but I believe what makes him most remarkable is his keen ability to use his heart, mind and spirit to facilitate progress within that movement.  The document that most thoroughly explains and actualizes our need for social justice and , in my opinion, the idea that a deliverance of such justice can not wait, is his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

Dr. King’s letter was written in response to local clergymen in Birmingham’s attempt to paint him as an agitator because he organized non-violent demonstrations against segregation and violence towards Blacks in the city (and throughout the US, actually).  King’s letter speaks directly to this particular incident, but more so outlines a compassionate and coherent case for social activism and justice that can serve as a model for any human rights movement.

As I sift through the pages of the letter, I can not help but consider Haiti.  One section deals specifically with the “white moderate”, who according to King, sat idly by as Blacks were lynched,beaten, and mauled by police and attack dogs, with their only crime being a desire to live as women and men.  He also harshly criticized white ministers who, through their biblical scholarship and pledges to do God’s work, should have joined him in his fight for the ultimate show of morality, civility and liberty.  King was angered and saddened that people could be so callous towards and dismissive of such horrid human suffering.  Unfortunately, so also is the case in Haiti.

I may exchange the “moderate white” that King speaks of in his letter for the “moderate westerner”, because truly the humanity of the Haitian people have been dismissed even by American Blacks whose ancestors toiled, sweated, bled and died, ultimately so that the US government could find itself in a position to pledge 100 million dollars to help rebuild Haiti. Our pain sits at the cornerstone of this wealthy nation, and the suffering that many of us are witnessing through this Haitian earthquake coverage should not at all be lost on any of us.

It should instead be a familiar cutting pain that we can trace back as far as the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown or as close as images of floating dead bodies in NOLA after Katrina.  Actually, it should be a global pain that the human family feels collectively. Any person in the world who lacks compassion for the people of Haiti today demonstrates, as Joesph Conrad noted, a heart of darkness.

In speaking of dark hearts, King, in the letter, writes about weeping at the lack of human kindness Blacks were shown during the Civil Rights movement. Unfortunately,  instead of weeping, I teeter totter between feelings of anger and disgust to those of nonchalance. Part of me is outraged at comments like those of Pat Robertson, a separate part is not at all surprised by those comments and even less surprised at the number of people who share Robertson’s world and social view.  I fully understand that we are all extremists, and also that, as Dr. King points  out below, we have to decide what kind of extremists we will be.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

So what say you exactly? How will you treat Haiti as you honor Dr. King?  Will you note that just as Blacks in the US during the Civil Rights Movement could not wait any longer to be treated as full human beings, so also can Haitians not wait to have their humanity recognized and respected.  Do not dismiss the suffering of a people because you choose to be a moderate westerner.  I dare you to be extreme and even more to be extreme for social justice.  If you can not lift bodies from the rubble, if you can not afford to donate, the least you can do is ensure that you take no part in the “poverty porn” that is being perpetuated on your TV screens.  People will say that Black and Brown people can wait.  But we can no longer wait for any of our people to be seen as more than wretched caricatures of hopelessness and despair.  Dr. King changed the world through his acts of extremism.

At the core though, he just wanted himself and his people to be seen in their flesh.   All any of us wants is to be visible, to be seen, that really is all.  Let us each do for our brothers and sisters in Haiti what the moderates would not do for Black Americans during the Civil rights movement.  We should stand up and stand beside Haitians as they battle for their lives and for their dignity, and be extreme in doing so.

Dr. King’s Letter from  a Birmingham Jail:

Haitians react to Pat Robertson’s ‘devil pact’ remark:


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Author: Kirwan Institute (439 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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