Could MLK’s Methods Work in the Time of Trump

Martin Luther King would have been 88 years old this year. Next year will mark 50 years since he left us. We should ask are his methods and strategies still the right ones? King was a man of great optimism and faith in human beings. His strategy reveals that. King’s method had two components. The first was an appeal to white moderates. His tactic was to bring the violence inherent in systems of oppression down upon himself and fellow demonstrators, to make it visible. Such examples of undeserved suffering and dramatization of the problem, would convince people to make a change. Those who watched the Birmingham police turn dogs or water hoses on unarmed protesting men women and children on the nightly news, those who saw those images transmitted abroad damaging American foreign policy interests, and those lawmakers who just felt “this has got to stop,” pressured the federal government to enact new laws.

This brings us to the second part of King’s strategy. He depended on the federal government to step in when local government and police were failing to protect the rights of black Americans. The Supreme Court, federal troops, federal courts, the FBI, federal marshals, and the U.S Attorney General’s office all stepped in at key moments to enforce federal laws and presidential decrees. Congress passed the laws I mentioned before. The Supreme Court ordered schools desegregated and said interstate travel facilities could no longer have separate “colored” and white waiting rooms or bathrooms. Crimes against an individual’s civil rights could be tried in federal courts. Federal courts and the Supreme court monitored voting rights violations and could strike down laws or order state agencies to rectify problems. Federal marshals escorted children who were desegregating schools. Federal courts could order busing to achieve school integration.

In a few days, we will be in the time of Trump. Sixty million people voted for him either because of his avowed views or despite them. Many of them feel that the pendulum has swung too far and that people of color, women, and immigrants have taken something away from them. They feel that Trump will somehow restore to them that which was taken away.

His list of nominees and future appointees have taken dead aim at some of the keystone achievements of the civil rights era. His attorney general nominee has opposed enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court has already said that some of the restrictions placed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should be removed and Trump will have the chance to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice and many federal judges. His nominee for the Housing and Urban Development Department has already said he disagrees with the Fair Housing Act of 1966. Trump’s nominee for secretary of education does not believe in supporting public schools and has no experience as an educator, student or parent in one.

Given this opposition by the electorate and the incoming executive branch we need to ask whether King’s strategy is still appropriate. That strategy was to rely on white moderates and the federal government to see that local resistance was overcome, federal laws were implemented, and the rights of minorities were protected.

The first thing to look at is that although he won the election, only about 25% of eligible voters voted for him. More voters voted for Clinton than Trump and many more voted for neither. There was also a clear division by age. Most voters under 45 voted for Clinton. Some of the people who voted for Trump were the same people who had voted for Obama in 2008. These people were voting for change. When it didn’t happen for them under Obama they voted for something new. If Trump fails to deliver for these people, they too could be won over to a new vision. This means that there are many voters to which to appeal and under the right circumstances King’s first strategy, appealing to white moderates, could still work.

The second part of King’s strategy is more problematic. Although his choices for cabinet positions are at this point still nominees, we should assume that they or others with the same views will eventually be appointed. Does this mean that all federal assistance for King’s issues will not be forthcoming? Here I would answer “not necessarily.” The laws that King fought so hard to see adopted, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, are still on the books as are past Supreme court rulings. Although the foot-dragging of the Republican Congress has left over 100 federal judgeships for Trump to fill, there are still many federal judges who will enforce the laws. However, these cases must still make it to court and I would not count on this administration’s aid to bring them there. In an ironic reversal, we now must count on local municipalities to protect us from the federal government. Many are doing it. For example, from Anchorage, Alaska to Miami, Florida, hundreds of municipalities have declared themselves sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants.

So, I think King’s methods and strategies could still work today. I am calling for a return to the true spirit of King. The belief that the acts of ordinary people still have power. The knowledge that the problems of racism, economic exploitation, and war are interrelated. The trust that nonviolent acts can change things. The understanding that a “beloved community” is not some idealistic dream but a realistic goal if we are willing to work for it.

One of King’s biographers once said that at first historians thought that King was living in the age of Kennedy. As time has given us perspective we know that Kennedy was living in the age of King. King has transformed American society, culture and politics. Even conservatives quote King albeit for their own purposes. Although we are about to enter the time of Trump we are still in the age of Martin Luther King Jr.

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