MLK on Black Power and Black Lives Matter

So Black Power is now a part of the nomenclature of the national community. … One must look beyond personal styles, verbal flourishes, and the hysteria of the mass media to assess its values, its assets, and liabilities honestly. – Martin Luther King Jr., “Black Power” in Where Do We Go from Here (1967)

There has been much speculation as to whether Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would embrace or reject the Black Lives Matter movement. Given that he is no longer here to speak for himself, a definitive answer is impossible to know. Many people, for better of for worse, liken BLM to the 1960s/70s clarion call for Black Power. They remember Dr. King as an opponent of that ideology and therefore dismiss BLM as the latest iteration of a pro-Black, anti-American cause. This is not a faithful interpretation of Dr. King and his understanding of the call for Black Power. Though Dr. King refused to employ the phrase Black Power for a variety of reasons, in his final statement on the matter, an essay in his last book Where Do We Go From Here, he expressed sympathy for the sociopolitical agenda of the Black Power sentiment while also vowing to resist seeking power to dehumanize others or using violence to gain social progress. If we compare and contrast Black Power and Black Lives Matter, paying close attention to how Dr. King delineates the positives and negatives of the call for Black Power, we will find that Black Lives Matter embodies the best of Black Power, as articulated by Dr. King himself. From this perspective, we can say that Black Lives Matter operates according to the spirit of Dr. King. That is certainly good enough for me.

Dr. King made several positive points about Black Power that apply equally to Black Lives Matter. First, he understood Black Power to be a cry of disappointment. Disappointment in the failure of “White” or American power to do justice to Black people. Disappointment that the most brutal White violence often went unpunished. Disappointment that the nation cared more about White lives lost in the struggle than Black ones. Disappointment that civil rights laws that were already passed were poorly enforced. Disenchantment that the nation applauds Black nonviolence but seeks to solves its international conflicts with war. Black Lives Matter is also a cry of disappointment for similar reasons. Disappointment in the failure of the American judicial system to bring justice for Trayvon’s murder and others like him. Disappointment that the nation cares more about preserving an officer’s irrational fear of his/her life, than the actually death of unarmed Black people. Disappointment that anti-discrimination laws are so easily circumvented and that the protections for Black voting rights have been willfully stripped from us by State legislatures with the complicity of the Supreme Court. Disappointment that mass incarceration continues to have such a devastating and debilitating impact on Black communities.

Second, Dr. King understood Black Power as a call for Black people to “amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals.” For King, this kind of power had the ability to bring about meaningful and legitimate social, political, and economic change only if it was combined with love to produce justice. In his formulation, “justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” To that end, Black Lives Matter has a similar attitude regarding the need to amass power to implement the just demands of love. One of the guiding principles of BLM is a commitment to restorative justice, define by the founders as “collectively, lovingly, and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people … intentionally build[ing] and nurture[ing] a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.”1 Just like King, BLM intends this productive, collective use of Black Power to liberate Blacks and free the nation from the bondage of its continual racism.

Third, Dr. King understood Black Power as a call for pooling Black financial resources to collectively attend to Black poverty. This observation of the “considerable buying power” of Black communities has been used by Black Lives Matter protestors to important retail holy days like “Black Friday” and Christmas and temporarily shut down activities at important retail centers like the Mall of America.

Finally, Dr King understood Black Power as a “psychological call to manhood.” The negative psychological weight of slavery, Jim Crow, and the negation of the contributions of Blacks to American history had to be overcome with a “deep feeling of racial pride” and “an audacious appreciation of his heritage.” The call for Black Power was a call for Blacks to stand up amidst a system of oppression, develop an unassailable sense of his own value and no longer be ashamed of being Black. Black Lives Matter extends this assertion of Black humanity beyond the patriarchal language employed by Dr. King in this text. Founded by three queer Black women2, Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum, intentionally choosing to center the lives of those who have been traditionally marginalized within Black liberation movements.3 To be sure, not all who proclaim Black Lives Matter adhere to this particular principle. This is certainly a problem, one better left to be addressed in another essay.

If the call for Black Power, and subsequently, the proclamation that Black Lives Matter has such potential for a revolutionary good, what are the potential dangers that could dampen our enthusiasm? Dr King had something to say about that as well.

King feared that at the root of the call for Black Power was a nihilistic philosophy that considered American society “so hopelessly corrupt and enmeshed in evil that there is no possibility of salvation from within.” This debilitating sense of the permanence and adaptability of White supremacy certainly has advocates today (see Ta-Nehisi Coates). Yet Dr. King argued that when hope is so diminished only hate can rise in its place. He steadfastly believed that hate cannot liberate. Black Lives Matter focuses on the liberation of Black people from White supremacy on the hope that “when Black people get free, everybody gets free.” It is not committed to the hatred or destruction of White people. It is committed to the dismantling of social structures that dehumanize all Black life and names these systems (nation) state violence.

Dr. King also negatively viewed Black Power as call for Black separatism. He emphasized that “buying Black” and pooling resources would not be enough to lift all of us out of poverty. He had a deep sense of how interconnected we all are, Black, White, and otherwise and frequently articulated the need for coalition-building. Black Lives Matter intentionally focuses on the oppression of Black people, but rejects simplistic notions of Black nationalism. They welcome allies who would join them in centering the struggle of all Black lives for freedom4 and remain in solidarity with other oppressed people fighting for their liberation as well.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s articulation of the positive aspects of Black Power and its potential drawbacks offers us an interesting lens by which to engage Black Lives Matter. As long as BLM operates within these parameters and deploys creative, nonviolent, and disruptive strategies in their freedom struggle, we can safely presume that Dr. King would be proud.

  1. Black Lives Matter, guiding principles at http://blacklivesmatter.com/guiding-principles/
  2. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors.
  3. See “The Creation of a Movement,” at http://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/.
  4. See their dialogue with White rapper Macklemore about his song “White Privilege” at http://blacklivesmatter.com/macklemores-white-privilege-and-the-role-of-white-allies/.

About Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society from Emory University in the Spring of 2015.

Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society at Emory University in the Spring of 2015. Jermaine researches interesting convergences between race, religion, and politics with the aim of analyzing how various groups bring their religious ideas of the common good to bear in U.S. society.

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