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.