This Thursday, April 4, is the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the decades since his untimely death, Dr. King has become a national hero. Yet when he died at the age of 39 he was one of the most unpopular people in the country. During the last two years of his life, Dr. King was going beyond challenging legal segregation to calling our nation to account for what he called the “giant triplets of evil” - racism, poverty, and militarism. In the last of his three books, he made the following distinction between passing civil rights laws and enforcing them in the face of ongoing white backlash:
There is a tragic gulf between civil rights laws passed and civil rights implemented. There is a double standard in the enforement of laws…All of this tells us that white backlash is nothing new. White America has been backlashing on the fundamental God-given rights of Negro Americans for more than three hundred years. With all of her dazzling achiemvents and stupendous material strides, America has maintained its strange ambivalence on the question of racial justice. (Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community p.87)
Dr. King’s words have proven to be prophetic. Over the last few years in particular, we have seen a resurgence of white backlash in the forms of both overt hate speech and crimes as well as complacence about ongoing structural injustice including racial disparities in education, policing, mass incarceration, health care, and economic security. As we remember the life and ministry of Dr. King on the anniversary of his death, we truly honor his legacy by hearing and acting on his call to recognize, challenge, and resist all forms of white supremacy.