Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights and Black Freedom Movements transformed the United States. Their victories laid the groundwork for our current struggles for racial, economic and climate justice. These victories required deep movement work and relationship building that is too often glossed over as if its success was inevitable — as if it was a natural progression for the United States to find compassion for Black people, brought to these shores in chains, enslaved and denied basic human and civil rights for more than 100 years after emancipation.
We can’t celebrate a narrative about a brave man fighting for justice without recognizing that we are part of that story. We don’t need to ask ourselves what we would have done if we had been there for the struggle, because the struggle continues.
We do need to ask ourselves the questions: “What are we willing to risk?” What are we fighting for? and “How can we grow our movement numbers and power in order to topple the systems which are oppressing people and destroying our planet?
During the campaign for voting rights in Selma, Alabama on what would become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, Dr. King and movement leaders attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On that day, organizers and community members were beaten bloody, bones broken in their first peaceful attempt to cross the bridge, aborted only because of the sheer violence of the police.
Returning a second time was a choice point and Dr. King did not know that history would hail the movement’s decision to do so. In scenes all too reminiscent of today, he saw segregationists and police so emboldened by their power that neither cameras nor promises of public attention would stop them. Going forward — he knew — was a path that would only cause greater confrontation, more jail time, and more violence. His actions would become a lightning rod for the racism embedded in the culture. In the backlash that followed, many would accuse him of causing these disturbances and instigating the hate mobs — violence that echoes in today’s headlines and news broadcasts, still as terrifying as in 1965.
Against such a backdrop, he chose to risk and live with grace, channeling anger into the “fierce urgency of now.” He resisted the urge to return violence with violence — even more so, he resisted the calls to temper his vehemence for freedom.
Today we face our own choice points, our own backlashes, mobs, and threats. In the face of that, we must confront our fears: fear there is no hope, that we aren’t powerful enough, that we don’t have the solutions we so desperately need, that resistance is too dangerous. If we can’t move past fear into action, then we’re merely spectators to injustice. Today we face our own questions. In this moment, we contemplate “What does it mean to fight our fight for climate justice in a manner that yields solutions and makes connections to other movements and people working for justice?”
Today we must face the need to create an intersectional movement not because it sounds good or is the politically correct thing to do but because it strengthens our solutions. Our work to fight against this climate crisis will never succeed if we aren’t able to make connections to other movements and inspire others to show up for us. We must also show up for them. It is not simply shutting down coal plants–it’s also keeping police from killing our neighbors and creating living wage jobs that support our families. It’s fighting back against the same system that says some communities are expendable. That is why we must fight. We know this is not easy. It was never meant to be and it never was.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. :
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
We must protect the Earth and our communities with a relentless fervor, strategic clarity and tenacity. Protecting our communities means more than stopping pipelines. In this political and social moment, the Climate Movement must confront the current level of violent and hateful intent being spewed toward marginalized Brothers, Sisters and Kin on the airwaves, in newspapers and in presidential debates. We must protect our Brothers, Sisters and Kin knowing that only together we can create a world where we can all live in our full dignity.
Our work is not merely a call for the escalating actions of Break-Free or an action call to sign a petition — this is a conviction of the soul. So on this MLK day, let us be convicted by his life’s values, committed to the escalation that he so believed in, and compelled to greater love and courage.
Everette R. H. Thompson (with support from a beloved community of writers)