#ReclaimMLK: Why We Need A Bigger Picture of the Civil Rights Movement

The narrative around the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s is very narrow. We’re taught in school that — because of racial inequality — Black people in the South staged peaceful protests to change the world for the better. The specific leaders of the civil rights movement are also treated with the same sterility. This is especially true of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday has just been honored again.

Because everything concerning civil rights is taught in terms of History, we are given the impression that the struggle for racial equality is over. By extension, those fighting today must therefore be merely causing a disturbance and not fighting for their personhood to be recognized, like the noble civil rights organizers of the past. Many using Dr. King’s legacy to shame those protesting today are doing so because of that narrow education around the civil rights movement. They do not understand that protests then — as now — were disruptive, and they do not understand that the protest leaders then — as now — were not automatically well-received, even by “moderates.”

Demonstrations are not effective if they happen at the corner of one’s eye. But in order for people to understand exactly how disruptive the Civil Rights movement was, they have to look beyond the few classroom quotes of MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech they learned in elementary school. They also need to understand that the non-violent protests of the past were deliberate acts of disruption.

From late 2014 to present, people have been taking to the streets protesting police brutality and the otherwise unjust murders of Black people across the country. Protesters have shut down freeways and train stations, disrupted brunches, and even managed to close down malls. It’s hard not to look at pictures and videos of these protests and see the similarity between them and the old black and white videos of protests in the past.

If you look specifically at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, that was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the status quo fundamentally. It was about far more than just seeking justice for the initial arrests that led up to the boycott, much in the way that today’s protests have become about more than any one victim. The privately-operated transit system lost money from of the refusal of Black people to use the buses for over a year, over its mandated segregation requirements, because Black people made up 75% of the transit system’s business.

Pictured: The Montgomery bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested at the start of the boycott. Now in the Henry Ford Museum. (via Wikimedia)

Pictured: The Montgomery bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested at the start of the boycott. Now in the Henry Ford Museum. (via Wikimedia)

Although the act didn’t involve violence, they also weren’t passive. They were purposefully breaking a law by organizing a boycott of a business, which at the time was illegal under state law. Dr. King was actually brought to court for the boycott and was eventually made to pay $1000 in fines and court fees as well as spend 2 weeks in jail.

Similarly, in 2014 during the Ferguson demonstrations we saw an attempt by law enforcement to silence protests. Protesters were told they weren’t allowed to stay in place and would have to continue marching or leave the protest area. This was an obvious attempt to dispel the protests by tiring out the people involved. The protesters chose to march daily for more than three months. It was later ruled by a District Court Judge that forcing the protesters to continue moving was a rights violation and could not be enforced.

On Monday, January 19th, 2015 in honor of the MLK holiday, protesters decided to #ReclaimMLK. They held marches in several cities, including Ferguson, urging people to continue to speak out. On their website, they made clear demands for what they wanted to accomplish in their protest — and encouraged people to connect and take action in their own cities. Most important of all they were declaring that their demonstrations are just as valid as Civil Rights demonstrations of the past.

The Civil Right movement is far from over. As King himself suggested in his own lifetime, it’s a continual process, and despite the progress that has been made, we still have a long way to go.

“Now you will notice that the extreme optimist and the extreme pessimist have at least one thing in common: they both agree that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because integration is impossible. But there is a third position, there is another attitude that can be taken, and it is what I would like to call the realistic position. The realist in the area of race relations seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites while avoiding the extremes of both. So the realist would agree with the optimist that we have come a long, long way. But, he would go on to balance that by agreeing with the pessimist that we have a long, long way to go. And it is this basic theme that I would like to set forth this evening. We have come a long, long way but we have a long, long way to go.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

On Miranda Warnings

This weekend, following the national drama of the Boston Marathon Bombings and metro area manhunt for the culprits, I’ve reposted & added notes to old posts on handling/prosecuting terrorists in the United States.

I wanted to add a note about Miranda Warnings because there’s been some hysteria over the fact that Suspect Number 2, who was taken alive, had not been “Mirandized” (read the standard notification of his legal rights under the Constitution and Bill of Rights) on the grounds of a “public safety” exemption to the Supreme Court-mandated advisory. First off, it bears repeating that there are no such things as “Miranda Rights.” This is a common misnomer. The rights, as mentioned above, come from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They were not invented by the Supreme Court’s Miranda v. Arizona decision in 1966; the court just established guidelines for a succinct set of warnings in an advisory to those being arrested so that they don’t later try to get their conviction thrown out because they weren’t notified of their right to have an attorney present and their right not to self-incriminate. Those four warnings are the ones you hear on television all the time, beginning with “You have the right to remain silent.”

Second and more importantly, he is not losing rights and no one is trampling on the Bill of Rights because the administration has invoked a “public safety” exemption and skipped the reading of the warnings. As I understand it — the “public safety” exemption on Miranda Warnings does not mean that the government will be prosecuting based on evidence obtained by statements made prior the warnings, so rights are not infringed. They usually use the exemption when they already have plenty of evidence — in this case a video has now surfaced of Suspect Number 2 placing one of the marathon bomb backpacks and walking away … so he’s going to jail no matter what he says or doesn’t say to investigators — rather they use the exemption when they want/need to find out quickly about other stuff they don’t already know. For example — they skip the warning of the right to remain silent so that they can ask if there are other bombs set to explode later or if there are other affiliated terrorists in the area. If he admits to having placed other bombs and they haven’t read him his rights, they probably can’t use that as evidence for further convictions, but they can at least find and disarm them. And at any rate, they still can’t compel the person to answer just because they didn’t officially read them their rights. Similarly, if they ask for a lawyer without prompting, the interrogation stops until a lawyer arrives. (This happened in January 2009 with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, when he was not Mirandized, after attempting to blow up a plane to Detroit in front of hundreds of witnesses.) Your rights remain whether or not you are advised of them. Not providing Miranda Warnings doesn’t take away rights and it can actually hinder prosecution later — so the exemption is used sparingly to obtain urgent information for public safety not to obtain new evidence for trial.

I also find it hard to believe that a 19-year-old who grew up in American culture wouldn’t know the Miranda Warnings from television — even Chief Rehnquist’s 2000 decision upholding Miranda v. Arizona that he originally opposed noted that the warnings had “become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture.” He is in all likelihood well aware of his rights even if they don’t mention them. And that’s all the Miranda Warnings are: a brief mention of your rights under the law & Constitution. The rights themselves don’t change or disappear if the warnings are modified or skipped.