Martin Luther King Jr. Day has special meaning this year, not only because it comes just months after the largest racial justice protests in U.S. history, but also because politicians and pundits who spent last year condemning those protests will now express reverence for Dr. King.
As historian Jeanne Theoharis writes, some Americans invoke King to hold up “the civil rights movement as the ‘right’ way to do [activism] and Black Lives Matter as the ‘wrong’ way.” Some of them interpret chants of “no justice, no peace” in the Black Lives Matter protests as violent departures from King’s legacy. Yet, that kind of contrast does not bear out in reality.
King may not have uttered the phrase “no justice, no peace,” which emerged as a rallying cry for racial justice decades after his assassination. Yet, he believed in the meaning of those words in his lifetime.
For King, justice — understood as respect for human rights — was a precondition for true peace; peace that preserved injustice was illusory. His 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail expressly called for a “transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”
Looking back, King’s writings and speeches described the exclusionary “negative peace” that had pervaded the South since the failure of Reconstruction. “So long as the Negro maintained [a] subservient attitude and accepted the ‘place’ assigned him, a sort of racial peace existed,” he observed. “But it was an uneasy peace in which the Negro was forced patiently to submit to insult, injustice and exploitation.”
Looking forward, King said, “I don’t want peace” if peace means “accepting second class citizenship,” “keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil,” “being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo,” and “a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated.”
In addition to highlighting the necessity of justice for genuine peace, King indicated that absent justice, tranquility would not last.
Speaking at the conclusion of a 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, he declared that “we will not allow Alabama to return to normalcy” because it is normalcy that “prevents the Negro from becoming a registered voter,” that “leaves the Negro perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of vast ocean of material prosperity.”
“The only normalcy that we will settle for,” he said, is “the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.”
In making these arguments, King was not alone. Bayard Rustin, a civil rights strategist who advised him, described racial justice as a requirement for both positive and negative peace. Writing in a May 1965 telegram to New York City Mayor Robert Wagner, Rustin characterized the previous summer’s unrest — following the police killing of James Powell — as emerging from Wagner’s failures to address “police brutality and economic hardship.” Rustin called for “a bold social and economic program” as a precondition for peace: “For social peace cannot exist in a vacuum; it is a by-product of justice obtained.” He also warned that without such social and economic justice, unrest would continue: Wagner could either “creatively meet the causes of discontent in spring, or negatively face another long hot summer.”
A. Philip Randolph, who worked closely with King and Rustin, said Black people needed to disrupt negative peace in order to influence leaders “more concerned with easing racial tensions than enforcing racial democracy.” He believed that government and liberal leaders ultimately “yield to the demands of those most capable of creating maximum pressures and social discord” because they “speak of justice and progress but more profoundly desire internal peace.” Accordingly, he insisted that Black people must “create and conduct a wide variety of actions constantly, so that social calm will not prevail until our demands have been met.”
Randolph put this strategy to work when he planned a march on Washington in 1941 to push President Franklin D. Roosevelt into ending discrimination in defense manufacturing plants. When Roosevelt caved and signed a fair employment practices order, Randolph called off the march. Randolph planned another march in 1948 to get President Harry Truman to desegregate the armed forces. Again, the president caved and Randolph called off the march.
An “Inherent Element” of Social Change
Thus, both King and his contemporaries would have viewed the overwhelmingly peaceful protests of last summer as a necessary step on the path to justice. In a 1958 letter, King and other civil rights leaders advised President Dwight D. Eisenhower that “tension is an inherent element of basic social change.” The real choice facing the nation was between “a bold program which moves through tension to a democratic solution” and “evasion and compromise which purport to avoid tension, but which in reality lead the entire society toward economic, social and moral frustration.”
Chants of “no justice, no peace” in the Black Lives Matter protests show precisely how failures to address police violence and structural racism have led “the entire society toward economic, social and moral frustration.” Arguments that protests over the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black people are a betrayal of King’s legacy — or akin to a white supremacist insurrection — are not only in bad faith but plainly wrong.
As I discuss in “Racial Transition” and elsewhere, we can more genuinely honor King’s vision of a just peace by:
–enacting laws that promote justice and accountability, including the For the People Act (which restores key protections of the Voting Rights Act), the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act;
–advocating for and implementing policies that promote equity, including school integration and investment plans, affirmative action programs, and disparate impact assessments; and
–establishing a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation, and other “transitional justice” measures to finally grapple with legacies of white supremacy.
Ultimately, we should recognize, as King did: Without justice, there is no peace.