Creative & Prophetic Resistance to Injustice: One Lesson from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fifty-five years ago today, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In a cowardly act of violence, as white supremacy always is, James Earl Ray shot Dr. King from across the street, hidden. Who might have assisted Ray, we will likely never know. What we do know, is that Dr. King’s mortal life ended that day. His wife, Coretta Scott King, became a widow, his four children, Martin, Yolanda, Dexter, and Bernice, became fatherless. For days, most of America’s larger cities burned in sadness, anger, and frustration.

Dr. King in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956, Life Magazine Collections

However, Dr. King did not leave us entirely. His words, in books, speeches, and sermons, live on. While his popular public image has certainly been sanitized and “whitewashed,” his words still live. His creative, radical assessment of the world and his justice-love-oriented solutions are available to anyone who chooses to read his work.

The 1955 bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, was perhaps his most clear and powerful protest. Lasting a year, he, with others in Montgomery, organized, strategized, and planned to get the vast majority of Montgomery’s Black citizens to work and elsewhere without using the city’s segregated buses. This protest was effective beyond Dr. King’s dreams. The city’s bus companies lost money and the city lost revenue. Even that did not cause the city’s white leadership to negotiate an end to the protest. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the city that public buses had to operate on an integrated basis. Once that ruling came down, unlike other Supreme Court rulings, Montgomery, and the bus companies, honored it.

Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, the NAACP, and others in Montgomery, prepared the Black community for the difficult road of a months-long boycott. They arranged car pools, figured out the most strategic locations for pick-ups and drop-offs. The organizational complexity must have been staggering but they made it work. People got to work on time, people got home at reasonable times. And they sustained this complex plan for a year. Once the protest ended, after the Supreme Court ruling, Montgomery’s Black community prepared itself to return to the integrated buses. Dr. King often said that they were not seeking a victory over anyone. Rather, they were seeking reconciliation. They didn’t want to defeat Montgomery’s white community. They wanted to ride the buses alongside them with dignity, decency, and justice. That is largely what happened.

This was a creative response to the injustice of segregated public buses. That segregation dehumanized Black people. It made them appear and feel as though they were less human, less citizens than white people. That diminishment was a lie. In a similar but not exact way, this segregation dehumanized white people too. It made them appear and feel superior. That superiority is also a lie. But Dr. King’s creative response brought the segregation to an end and then the truth could emerge. Black and white people could ride the public buses in an integrated way and the world did not end, the sky did not fall.

Dr. King listening to President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. Photo by Stan Wayman, Life Magazine Collections

It is hard to know if the same kind of creative organization would work in 2023. Today people are more distracted, perhaps less willing to commit, maybe less thoughtful, less aware. The problems created by white supremacy are still with us, perhaps they are worse today than in 1955.

Today, with few exceptions, America cannot move forward on police reforms, thus, violent and racist police cultures rule many law enforcement agencies. America remains locked in growing inequality. The Covid pandemic reveals the broken nature of our health care “system.” Education in America is painfully segregated still. In many places, teaching Black history as part of American history is illegal. In fact, even teaching the most basic realities of America history is illegal. White supremacy has so taken hold of school boards and a so-called “parents’ rights movement,” that books about basic American realities like slavery, segregation, the civil war, are banned.

In his last Sunday sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King noted that if progress against injustice was not made quickly in America, it was very possible, if not likely, that fascism could begin to take hold here. In this assessment, he was prophetic. He knew history and he knew America. Today, his words are coming true. As more white people flock to the Republican Party, a fear-based grievance-anger has been born. It is alive and dangerous. One need only look at the insurrection of 2021 to see how violent and reckless white grievance is today.

I have no simple answer. But I know that Dr. King’s radical assessment of American culture is still valid. In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? he offers us insights on the three evils in American society: racism, militarism, consumerism. If we can understand his layered and thoughtful analyses of these problems, we will be several steps closer to progress. Dr. King’s life and work do not contain easy solutions. But his insights can inform us and move us toward strategies that actually address the realities that cause so much suffering and injustice in America today.

Fifty-five years is not a long time. Most people have never read one of Dr. King’s books. If you are one of those people, do something about it. Read Stride toward Freedom, his account of the Montgomery Bus Protest. Read Why We Can’t Wait, his assessment of the violence of 1963. Read Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? His assessment of the international crises facing the world. Let his words and insights move you in the direction of new ideas, new strategies, new approaches, to build what he called “the Beloved Community.” Doing nothing will get us nothing. Doing something offers us movement. Dr. King’s own words are a necessary place to begin.

Photo at top: Dr. King beside an empty bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956. Photo by Don Cravens, Life Magazine collections.

Published by

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

2 thoughts on “Creative & Prophetic Resistance to Injustice: One Lesson from Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Thanks, Joe, for sharing your assessment of our country today. Thanks, too, for inviting others to read Dr. King’s words. I read “Why We Can’t Wait” as a 17-year-old, and it has had a lasting impact on my life.


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