Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Facts of Injustice

By Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

If you are looking for a real way to observe the holiday named for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., take some time to read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which Dr. King reflects on the Church, America and the call for justice that cannot wait.  

Among the challenging brilliance of this letter, there is one piece that strikes me today in a way that it has not before – especially as we continue to endure the dystopia that mars our country.  It comes as the Reverend outlines the steps for the non-violent campaigns in which Dr. King had engaged that led to his imprisonment in Birmingham.

The very first step of any movement towards justice, according to King, is the “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist.”  Dr. King understood that it is essential to establish the facts in order to see clearly the baseline challenge to be addressed.  Once you can clearly state ‘herein lies the problem,’ the strategies on how to change the situation can be developed and gains can be measured against the original facts.

King laid out the facts of Birmingham clearly in his original letter: “There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case.”

In 2019, there are also “hard, brutal facts” of injustice, and yet these very facts are under attack.

One of the most glaring nefarious practices of the current administration has been the steady and intentional stream of disinformation, meant to undermine facts.  We learned this in the first days of the administration when the term “alternative facts” was first introduced to describe something as verifiable as the size of the inauguration – and it has only gotten worse since then.  The Atlantic estimates that Trump alone has made 7,645 “false assertions” in his first two years.  These “false assertions,” or lies as they are also known, undermine any attempt to address current real challenges that we as a nation face.  The lies of Trump, and of his colleagues, also serve to mislead the gullible into believing that no such challenges exist and lead them towards challenges that do not.

Lies and the undermining or active ignorance of facts have had deadly consequences.  Lies have led to an immigration policy that included children being ripped from their parents , the passage of a bigoted Muslim ban, the erasure of laws to prevent climate change, a fear based targeting of trans people, and the reinforcing of systematic racial inequity.  The constant stream of lies is a strategy for undermining justice and it has been effective in throwing the public, the media and movements for justice on the defensive.

Dr. King was a spiritual leader, and he understood that the role of spirituality in public life is to offer clarity of vision and of morals.  As the Rev. Dr. William Barber has said: “The role of any seminary must be to teach people how to see.” Bonafide religious or spiritual leaders must name things as they really are, so that we might work for what might become.   

Those who would oppose social progress will try to spin a web of lies around the evil that they perpetuate.  Dr. King was a prophet who tore through the web to reveal the facts, and then to establish a plan to challenge the injustice.  In our time, we must insist on facts and name the lies that stand in the way of justice and to denounce those who intentionally disseminate them.   

The naming of facts is a sacred act.

As I remember Dr. King I give thanks for his clarity of vision, for the facts of injustice that he saw experienced and named, and all he did to challenge them in his day.  In 2019, may we do the same. 

Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President and Editor of Voices. 

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