Martin Luther King Jr. Defended Democracy Against Racism and So Must We

A racist mob broke church windows and threatened to kill Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1,500 activists sitting terrified inside First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in May 1961. The angry men believed in the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and circled the church because, for them, whiteness was more important than democracy.

Almost 60 years later, in January 2021, President Trump rallied supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol and stop the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Calling it a “rigged election,” Trump greenlit a stampede that led to the mob killing an officer, crushing another one, and placing two pipe bombs to kill “traitors.” Police whisked politicians to safe rooms as insurrectionists broke into the Senate Chamber. Some waved Confederate flags and one had on an Auschwitz hoodie. Again, whiteness was more valued than democracy.

These two mob attacks occurred decades apart, but they involved similar right-wing reactions to democracy at work. The violence in Washington, D.C., this month highlights the relevancy of King’s life.

King was the standard bearer of a Black tradition that defends democracy against racism. It is a vision that parses America as a political ideal versus America as a settler colonial, white ethnostate. The ideal was a North Star guiding Black America past grinding racism to achieve real if fragile citizenship. Now fair elections are in danger as Republicans increasingly adopt fascism. In order to mobilize the masses to defend the vote, we need to take a page from King’s final years and demand a deeper democracy, from the ballot to the work place.

Defending the Ballot

“All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters,” King said in his 1957 speech Give Us the Ballot. “The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”

He was a cherubic 28-year-old pastor who gave the last speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, a 20,000-person rally for Civil Rights at the Lincoln Memorial. Facing weary but hopeful people, he lifted the refrain “give us the ballot” into a call for action.

“Amens” rose from the audience. King gave new life to a 200-year tradition. Black people have long fought to use the ideal of democracy against racism. In The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution by Sidney Kaplan and Emma Kaplan, we read of Crispus Attucks, a Black man, who in 1770 led a street crew to hurl ice and insults at soldiers of King George the Third. Anger at the crown’s heavy hand on the colonies had boiled over. The soldiers shot and killed Attucks and friends. In the revolution that followed, Blacks petitioned the young nation for their freedom. One said the “Great Number of Negroes who are detained in a State of slavery in the Bowels of a free and Christian Country” are demanding “Their Natural and Unalienable Right to Freedom.” The idea became the bedrock of the Black political tradition.

Black leaders have relentlessly ripped the scab off America’s hypocrisy. In word and action, they have pushed for greater freedom and have been met with fierce racist reaction. In 1829, David Walker wrote his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World saying: “Now, Americans! I ask you candidly, was your sufferings under Great Britain, one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?”

Authorities incinerated copies of Walker’s book.

In March 1860, Frederick Douglass gave a pivotal but lesser known speech, “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?” in which he carried the baton from the Revolutionary era petitions and Walker’s Appeal. “The way to abolish slavery in America,” Douglass said, “is to vote men into power as will use their powers for the abolition of slavery.” December of that year, Irish workers threw him down the stairs. Abolitionists were often attacked. In 1834 a nativist mob in New York rampaged their homes, alongside Irish and Black neighborhoods. In 1843, they beat Douglass unconscious outside of a church.

When King stepped to the podium at the Lincoln Memorial in 1957 and said, “Give us the ballot and we will … by the power of our vote write the law … and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence,” he invoked a deep rooted Black political strategy. Fourteen years later in 1961, when he gripped the lectern at The First Baptist Church as a racist mob hurled rocks through windows, it was a repeated scene of racist counter reaction to Black people using Democracy to advance freedom.

In 2018, King’s strategy was taken up by former Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams, a Black progressive. She campaigned for the governorship and narrowly lost by fewer than 55,000 ballots to former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who purged 1.5 million voters off the roles. She started Fair Fight after the loss to reverse voter suppression. They knocked on doors and raised $6 million. Literally the same day that the right-wing mob scaled the Capitol and were barely beaten back, Abrams’s work paid off and two Senate runoff races were won by Democrats and ended Republican rule.

From Attacks on BLM to Attempted Assassinations in D.C.

“Yeah,” the Proud Boys cheered as they burned a Black Lives Matters banner. The bright flames consumed the words and in the ruddy light, the faces of the men looked like those of America’s past who gloated as Black churches or Black people burned. It was during the December 12 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., that was part of a chaotic wave of right-wing violence in which four people were stabbed.

Twenty-six days later, on January 6, members of the far right were cheered on by Trump as they tried to stage a coup. At the “Save America” rally, the real goal was to protect whiteness from democracy. The battleground was set by Trump when he used racial language to bolster his campaign and then to frame his loss as “theft.” He cursed Democrats as socialists, warning they would open the borders to Latinx immigrants, whom he had from the start called rapists and criminals. He inaccurately accused mainstream Democrats of planning to defund the police, scaremongering about what he described as Black inner city “war zones.” After he lost the election, he blamed it on what he deemed “corrupt” Democratic areas, especially majority Black or Latinx cities like Detroit.

Right-wing media from Fox News, Breitbart and Newsmax hammered the fake story of election theft. In essence, they reinforced a diluted version of the far right “white genocide” conspiracy theory that mixed in the same circles as QAnon which imagined that a secret cabal of Satanic pedophiles ran the deep state. The racist conservatives that compose a bulk of the MAGA world had their pre-existing authoritarian impulses triggered by the fear of losing their group status to an immoral political party. Trapped in this apocalyptic vision of us vs. them, it is no surprise that they stormed the Senate chambers.

When Trump insurrectionists invaded the Capital walls to stop the vote, they were part of a traditional right-wing assault on democracy. Among the selfie posing and confused milling about were squads with zip ties intent on assassinating elected officials, according to federal prosecutors. Briefings on Capitol security warn that thousands of Trump die-hards again plan to storm D.C. to stop President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The United States is at a tipping point. The vision of a full robust inclusive democracy that King inherited from the Black political tradition is colliding against the other America of a violent white ethnostate.

King’s Vision of Economic Justice Can Help Us Defeat Fascism

In 1966, King told staff, “Something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” He saw that the racial desegregation of restaurants and transportation and the 1965 Civil Rights Act did not improve the material lives of Black people. Whole generations lived and died in what he described in his 1963 I Have a Dream Speech as slums that were an “island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

King’s demands for economic justice are crucial in the struggle against rising American fascism. When King and the leading civil rights organizations embarked on a Poor People’s Campaign to stage a protest camp called Resurrection City, they amassed a diverse, multiracial coalition.

The demands were full employment, a guaranteed income and the building of massive new affordable housing. King’s vision of justice meant democracy had to go deeper into the body politic and deliver more than equal rights, but equal access to the necessities of life. Real work. Real housing. Real dignity.

Before he could lead the Poor People’s Campaign, King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. A man sick with hatred aimed a gun at him. Maybe King, in his last moments, forgave him too.

Today we are faced with an attack on King’s vision. Right-wing mobs threaten U.S. democracy. The economic collapse from the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions in debt and desperate for help. Families have buried more than 350,000 loved ones who died from the virus. The world is in pain.

Now is when King’s dream has the most power to heal. He lifted the hope that Black America had placed in democracy and broadened it into a universal call for love. Democracy is not just a political system, it is a moral view of the world in which we co-create the world with and for each other. It is why King wrote in a private letter on Valentine’s Day, “Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos.”