“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This is one of the most often quoted lines from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It has many interpretations, but one fundamental meaning. To solve the pressing social problems of our time, people must work together necessarily.
America is facing epic challenges: a pandemic of historical dimensions, continual unwarranted police murders of black citizens, national mass protests, and a U.S. President who relishes opportunities to stoke racial tensions for political gain. Blacks and others are justifiably outraged and demand justice, equal application of the law, and equal protection by the police – or should one say, equal protection from the police.
Blacks have been beset by injustice since the beginning of slavery in America. The outrage started even before the establishment of the country by individuals such as noted South Carolinian Boston King – a runaway slave who joined the Red Coats to overthrow slavery. It ran through the collective efforts of individuals like Harriet Tubman, David Walker, Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others past and present. During Jim Crow, W.E.B. DuBois meticulously documented in the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine over 3000 lynchings of blacks – most undertaken with police complicity.
Through countless protests, blacks have galvanized, led, and inspired millions to take action against all forms of injustice. They have fought ceaselessly for better quality and application of democracy. Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and whites have joined their struggles.
While the system of justice should respond uniformly without regard to race or ethnicity, that exists in theory only. The truth is, equality is applied more swiftly when whites demand it – even if they do so on behalf of Blacks. It happened in the civil rights movement. For decades, blacks were killed and dehumanized with impunity. The national media did not shine a light on it until white freedom riders joined the struggle. Then the national guard was deployed to protect peaceful protesters.
The truth is that white involvement matters! It is particularly crucial in the current environment. Mass white participation has made it complicated for President Trump to race-bait peoples’ outrage over the police killing and turn a legitimate struggle into a law and order platform. Recall how he played to peoples’ fears by proclaiming swarms of immigrants were invading our borders.
Beyond politics, however, white involvement is an essential catharsis. It helps whites to understand one part of the day-to-day existence of being black. Coming face to face with hundreds of armed riot police, national guardsmen, and military police make one ask, are they there to serve and protect, or to apply unreasonable force and abuse power? This question goes through every black person’s mind in every interaction with the police.
To reiterate, every person is “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Democracy does not solve the problem of racial inequality. But without it, genuine, sustainable progress in that direction is impossible. It is truly heartwarming that so many whites are so passionate about racial justice in America. It opens the possibility that an essential new movement has started.