'Where Do We Go From Here?' -- Dr. King's Answer To Donald Trump

01/16/2017 06:25 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2018

On Wednesday January 4, 2017, a full-page advertisement in the New York Times declared the Trump presidency a fascist regime and called on millions who stand in opposition to rise up in a resistance movement that would create a political crisis in the nation. The group's webpage announced a month long action in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to shut down Washington DC and prevent Donald Trump from taking office. I thought I was reading an old SDS Weatherman call for "Days of Rage" in Chicago in 1969 when revolution was supposed to be imminent (it didn't happen), and then I saw the ad was signed by some of the same "sixties" radicals. A friend joked that if they really wanted to shut down Washington this time they should join the Republican Party.

A Donald Trump presidency is scary, but fascism has not arrived in the United States, at least not yet. I will join the January 21 Women's March on Washington to protest the Trump agenda, but I don't think the solution at this point is to take to the streets in rebellion. A lot of grassroots organizing has to be done to turn the nation around.

Given today is the official holiday recognizing Dr. King, I thought it was appropriate to turn to him for on advice on how to proceed.

In an August 1967 speech at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. asked his audience, which included much of the leadership of the African American civil rights movement, "Where do we go from here?"

The Civil Rights Movement had achieved many legislative and judicial victories. The Brown decision by a unanimous Supreme Court declared de jure segregation of public schools a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in public accommodations, including schools, housing, at the workplace, and in facilities that served the general public. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited states and localities from imposing voting restrictions resulting in racial discrimination and empowered the federal Justice Department to enforce regulations.

Yet despite these achievements support for civil rights was waning among White liberals who believed its goals had already been achieved with the passage of legislation and court rulings and urban Blacks, especially younger people, who did not see the conditions of their lives, education, employment, and housing, significantly improved. Many established Black leaders had renounced King because of his opposition to the War in Vietnam.

Dr. King could have been discouraged, maybe he should have been discouraged, but he wasn't. These were dark times for the non-violent civil rights movement. In 1964 there were race riots in Harlem, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rioting had torn apart Watts in Los Angeles in 1965 and had just destroyed Black communities in Detroit and Newark. His campaign to desegregate housing in Chicago stalled in the face of intense northern racism.

Instead of being discouraged Dr. King told the assembly that it was time to "honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society." Challenging racial discrimination within American society was proving to be insufficient. It was time to question the "edifice" that produced a society wrought with poverty, inequality, and injustice. He had concluded, the "problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together . . . A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will 'thingify' them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together."

When I re-read Dr. King's speech, the speech and the questions he posed seem remarkably contemporary and even prescient. Racial inequality has definitely not ended. According to a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute, "Millions of African Americans live in communities that lack access to good jobs and good schools and suffer from high crime rates. African American adults are about twice as likely to be unemployed as whites, black students lag their white peers in educational attainment and achievement, and African American communities tend to have higher than average crime rates." There are nearly one million African Americans in prison in the United States, a result of unfair drug laws, a privatized prison industry, and courtesy of the school-to-prison pipeline.

In the "Age of Trump," rightwing ascendency and anti-democratic authoritarian movements across Europe, genocide in Africa, terror and war in the Islamic world, and environmental rapists in control of the world's most populous nations in Asia, where do we, progressives, people who believe in social justice, go from here? It is also the "Age of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders." Dr. King believed the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice" and that that "Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again." But we live in an age of false news on Facebook and post-truth, what Steven Colbert calls truthiness, and I am not as confident.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was sustained by a religious faith I do not share. He could call on the Bible and Christian theology for comfort and support. When Dr. King said, "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap," I am sure he must have anticipated Donald Trump. Dr. King's beliefs sustained his "hope for the future," his certainty that "we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, 'We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.'"

There are lessons that can be learned n Dr. King's analysis and faith, in his life, hope, and commitment. In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King addressed white clergy who were critical of the civil rights campaign in their Alabama city. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC were accused of being outsiders disrupting peaceful local accommodations. King responded, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds." In this case I expand on Dr. King, in fact, I think he would as well. Anyone who lives on this planet can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Birmingham's white clergy deplored the demonstrations taking place in their city. Dr. King's response was that "your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations . . . It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative."

Dr. King responded by explaining his strategy for promoting progressive change and social justice. "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth."

The words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to offer vital lessons for social movements. We are not outside agitators. We must address underlying causes, not just symptoms. Our job as organizers is to promote action that precipitates crises. And we must always remember, "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

There is one last lesson that is fundamental to sustained struggle for progressive social change. The struggle ages and dies unless each generation prepares a new generation to be activists. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a teacher as well as a minister and an activist. At Birmingham, in Selma, young people were at the forefront of the struggle, learning to be activists in their own right. In Birmingham, thousands of young people joined the Children's Crusade. King told participants "What you do this day will have an impact on children yet unborn" and parents "Don't worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don't hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of mankind." During the Civil Rights Movement college students held sit-ins, road busses, taught literacy classes, and conducted voter registration drives.

There is much to be hopeful for on the progressive left today despite the Trump ascendency. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow. The Bernie Sanders campaign energized a new generation of young people to political action, many who will return to local communities to build grassroots groups and where they will influence political decision-making. Globalization and technology have transformed how people live all over the world, ending isolation, and creating the potential multi-national political action across old boundaries. The environmental movement is global and should form the basis for expanding international networking.

As old and new progressive activists try to figure out where we go from here there will be many opportunities for non-violent civil disobedience challenging imperialistic adventurism and nuclear rearmament, the privatization of schools and social services, environmental destruction in the United States and around the world, the erosion of civil liberties, and increasing economic inequality. I never got to meet or speak with Dr. King but I know he would have been at the front of the line in the next era of discussion, organizing, and protest.

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