Change comes from peaceful protests. MLK knew preventing riots means recognizing common humanity, ending brutality.
Like many fellow citizens I have watched the developments in Ferguson, Missouri, with a sense of deep sorrow and shame. Sorrow at the loss of yet another black youth, shame that I feel helpless to do much about it.
I know that I am not alone.
Dr. King knew all too well the abject poverty that had long plagued these cities. Rampant unemployment, racial profiling, police brutality, substandard housing, stunted educational opportunities and political disenfranchisement had been wracking these cities for years. Newark and Detroit were smoldering tinderboxes, and rage had overpowered reason.
To those who would listen, Dr. King condemned the riots while pointing to the corrosive conditions that created them. In a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson, King said, "Though the aimless violence and destruction may be contained through military means, only drastic changes in the life of the poor will provide the kind of order and stability you desire. There is no question that the violence and destruction of property must be halted, but Congress has consistently refused to vote a halt to the destruction of the lives of Negroes in the ghetto."
King goes on in the telegram to lament the rejection of congressional legislation that could benefit the nation's urban poor, and he lays out a plan to "end unemployment totally and immediately…If our government cannot create jobs, it cannot govern. It cannot have white affluence amid black poverty and have racial harmony. The turmoil of the ghetto is the externalization of the Negro's inner torment and rage."
The press, though, were far more interested in headlining the reactions of the protesters.
Dr. King struggled with how to juxtapose his public pronouncements with his private pain. He felt helpless and ultimately decided not to travel to Detroit to help stop the ongoing riots because he felt the trip would be futile. "I feel that my job is to try to work in communities to build the programs and to try to bring about the response from administrations that will prevent riots."
I turned on the television Sunday night to see that the police had once again fired tear gas on the protesters, and to learn that an independent autopsy requested by the family of Michael Brown found that he had been shot six times, twice in the head. Just the kind of "breaking news" you don't want to hear when you're trying to quell a riot.
I have no idea where this story is headed in the coming days, weeks and months. Sadly, I do know where America is headed if we don't come to recognize that these killings of black youth are really much less about black and white or even wrong and right, and more about our society's incessant contestation of the dignity and humanity of too many fellow citizens.
So, what to do about our individual and collective sense of helplessness and hopelessness?
In truth, there's really no need to feel helpless or hopeless if we're willing to do the work to make America a nation as good as its promise. But the hard work has to be done. What kind of nation do we really want to be? What kind of people are we really? Do we really think it's right that a town like Ferguson which is 67 percent black should be under white political rule? Is it just that Ferguson should have 50 white police officers and only three African Americans?
It's time for a revolution of values in America.
Gil Scott Heron was right, the revolution will not be televised. It will also not be tweeted.
Practical measures, advocated through persistent and peaceful protests, must be realized to relieve the suffering of the downtrodden trapped in the hopeless cycle of poverty and despair.
Otherwise, this summer of mayhem is far from over and we may see more cities aflame in the near future.
Tavis Smiley is host and managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS, and author of the forthcoming bookDeath of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year.
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