MLK and Restoring Justice

A man raising his fist at a protest, seeking justice

Speaking Out for Justice

As we celebrate the ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., we like to repeat his dream that one day his four children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” and that one day, even in Alabama where the racists are vicious, “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.” [1] He speaks of a glorious future when equality and freedom will flourish, from coast to coast and in every state. His words are poetic, passionate, and they fill us with warmth and hope.

We don’t pay as much attention to other parts of his speech, however. For instance, he reminded his listeners that in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, black people were promised freedom. When King spoke a hundred years later, they still were not free. Instead, he said, they lived “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity.” They were “exiled in [their] own land.” Unlike their white brethren, black people did not enjoy the “unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” [2]

Having waited one hundred years already, King’s people did not want to wait anymore. They could not accept “gradualism.” Instead, King said, the promises of democracy must be made real for everyone, not just for whites, and that they must be made real now.

Since then, civil rights have been strengthened and weakened, but today, we still need the freedom and justice King demanded for his people.

Nonviolent Resistance

The nonviolent action taken by King and his followers resulted in legislation that seemed as if it might, one day, make his dream come true. But the rights blacks won have been chipped away at, sometimes abolished wholesale. Now, sixty years after King gave that speech, the culture of racism and oppression against minorities remains the norm.

Voices of dissent cry out. Marches and protests against police brutality and heartless immigration practices have filled the news these last four years, but meaningful change has not been made. Perhaps the recent, violent uprising of white supremacists will backfire on them. By making their hatred so palpable, they have horrified many who disapprove of the “cancel culture” and “Black Lives Matter” movement on the Left.

Even so, those white militants were treated with a tolerance black protesters never have been. Perhaps that’s why, in the same “Dream” speech, King said we must not act out of “bitterness and hatred.” Rather than stooping low and using violence, “we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” [3] Similarly, Michelle Obama said in 2016, “When they go low, we go high.” [4]

This is a good strategy whatever the color of your skin. We might enjoy acting out of anger, for when we dominate others we feel powerful, but in the long run, we end up creating more divisiveness, greater opposition, and we leave dead and wounded everywhere. Peaceful resistance is the better choice.

Demanding Justice

That doesn’t mean we should stop demanding justice. To create a nation that fulfills its promise of justice, equity, freedom, and the right for everyone to pursue happiness, we must uncover the powers that celebrate greed, name the people who stir up the populace with intimidation and falsehoods, and we must hold them accountable.

King would agree. While he was in the Birmingham Jail, eight white clergymen wrote “A Call for Unity,” which was published in the local newspaper. In their essay, they argued that King’s methods were divisive. They called for an end to the demonstrations, saying that instead, black activists should take their demands to the courts.

In response, King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He pointed out that the courts were unjust. They remain so today. He pointed out that police brutality against blacks was common. It still is. He stated that crimes against black people went unsolved and unpunished. Often, they still do.

In the letter, King called for justice, stating that “peace is not merely the absence of . . . tension, but the presence of justice,” [5] and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” [6]

So we must continue to make demands.

Sign saying "No Justice No Peace"
Photo by Clay Banks

Justice for Whom

What does it mean to make demands?

It means, we keep marching until the promises of freedom and justice for everyone are fulfilled. That’s the approach Black Lives Matter demonstrators are taking, as are those who condemn harsh immigration laws. Yes, sometimes things get out of hand. Some among these protesters resort to rioting and looting. But overall, the gatherings, though sometimes met with violent resistance by the police, are peaceful.

Even so, Black Lives Matter demands have made a difference. Some courts have found the perpetrators of violence against black individuals to be guilty. Some communities have taken down Confederate monuments. Bit by bit, these uprisings change our culture, as the Civil Rights movement did in the 1960s.

Some people will argue that the MAGA protesters are doing the same thing. They are demanding their rights. After all, many of them believe the lies their president and his cronies have told them. They believe the vote was rigged, that Trump should have won, and that the way to right this wrong is to take over the government and give Trump four more years in the White House.

Believing the Lies

If you can’t understand how our current president and his sycophants have fooled so many people, look at history. Around the world, leaders have swayed crowds and claimed power by telling hyperbolic, self-serving lies. By making villains of the enemy and spreading stories of imminent disaster, they cater to our tendency toward tribalism.

The lies they tell need not make sense, however. Indeed, according to Peter Kreko, who has researched how dictators frame their narratives, “the grosser, the bigger, the cruder the lie, the more readily is it believed and followed.” [7]

That’s what our president has done. He has framed the narrative with gross, crude lies, and many Republican politicians followed his lead. That’s because lies work. They create chaos and dissension and rally the crowds to their cause.

When a mob is energized by tales that kindle their fear of survival, they can become violent. That’s what happened with the Trump supporters who attempted to take over the government earlier this month. White supremacists believe in dominance and intimidation, so they prefer violence to collaboration. Whenever Trump supporters protest, they brandish weapons. When they stormed our nation’s Capitol, they were prepared to kill. One police officer was murdered.

This is not the peaceful protest King was talking about. This is fear, resentment, and hatred run rampant.

Holding People Accountable

In the face of such threats, what do we do? We develop protections for the innocent, and we hold people accountable. We have police officers and a military for a reason. Some people do need to be behind bars. When people break laws and intimidate the vulnerable, they must experience consequences.

Of course, if our world worked this way, the attempted insurrection would never have started, for only people who have lived their lives with the freedom to do what they want, even if it hurts someone else, think it’s okay to take over a government because they lost an election.

Some people suffer simply because of the color of their skin, because of a disability, because they’re poor, or because they love someone that society says they shouldn’t. Others lynch those they don’t like, yet face no punishment. Though life isn’t fair, we can make it more just.

There’s a danger in depending solely on holding people accountable, though. When we do so, we can end up with a “law and order” mentality that equates justice with punishment.

Zero Tolerance and Restorative Justice

One example of that are the “zero tolerance” policies introduced into schools in the 1990s. In this model, any infraction is met with immediate punishment, usually by removing the offender from the community through suspension or expulsion. Rigid rules are developed; guilt is assigned, fairly or not; police are called in, especially among communities of color and places with high poverty rates; and the offender is rejected.

Studies show that, instead of improving things for students and teachers, these policies increase delinquency and dropout rates and leave schools less safe than before. [8]

That’s why some school systems are switching to a model of restorative justice. There are many ways to implement restorative justice, but basically, instead of focusing on punishment and rejection, which often results in scapegoating, restorative justice does what it sounds like: it restores relationships, focusing on the victim’s needs, seeking meaningful restitution, and integrating the offender back into the community.

A man raising his fist at a protest, seeking justice
Photo by Mélodie Descoubes

Restorative Justice Works

According to a case study performed by Jo Lauren Weaver and Jacqueline M. Swank, after switching to a restorative justice model, fewer students in an urban middle school became involved in the criminal justice system and their teachers made fewer referrals for discipline. Bullying at the school decreased, as did cyberbullying. Relationships between teachers and students improved, as did peer relationships. Absenteeism decreased, and student achievement improved. [9]

One study, performed by the Rand Corporation, found that the academic scores of students at schools that used restorative justice in one particular urban school actually decreased. The authors of the study suggested that this might be because teachers had to spend more time managing classroom disruptions by students that, in the past, would have been sent to the principal’s office or suspended, thus giving teachers less time to address academics. [10]

This highlights some challenges with restorative justice. It requires an interest on the part of the teacher, training in how to implement the model, and time to engage and involve students. Designed to change the culture of a school, restorative justice demands significant effort at the beginning. When administrators and teachers put in the effort, though, they reap significant benefits.

Reforming Our Prisons

Punishment is overrated. We’ve been trying it for thousands of years, and it has been proven ineffective. Not only does it not work in our schools, it also doesn’t work in our prisons.

According to an article about incarceration by Mark P. Fancher in Yes!, the native cultures of Africa rarely imprisoned perpetrators. Instead, they supported victims and restored relationships. Then the Europeans arrived. To help establish the supremacy of the white race in Africa, they built prisons because, as Fancher put it, this would allow them to “curtail rebellion.” Before that, Africans had not needed such Draconian measures. [11]

Now, Scandinavian countries are borrowing from these Africans. Norway and Finland, for instance, have reformed their prisons, turning centers for punishment into humane institutions that focus on rehabilitating offenders and reintegrating them back into society. As a result, the recidivism rate has decline. Now, in those countries, it is far lower than in the United States. [12]

The Injustice of Our Justice System

Fancher is not convinced we can replicate these systems here, however, for in Scandinavia, most prisoners are white, while in our country, the majority are racial minorities. [13] Life is hard for anyone who leaves an American prison, because our society denies them housing and jobs, essentially punishing them for life, but the racist systems and assumptions entrenched in the United States mean that a person of color fares worse here than do white people.

Regardless of race, though, the lifelong shaming of individuals who have been incarcerated is one reason our recidivism rate is so high. Instead of helping offenders become productive members of society, we thrust them to the margins. Not everyone in prison has committed a crime, but even if only the guilty were locked up, that’s still no excuse to make life miserable for them while they are there and then create barriers as they try to rebuild their lives. That is not justice.

There are alternatives. Our prisons can be humane and reformative. Besides, most crimes are better addressed in the community.

Restitution and Restoration

Truth and reconciliation commissions are one possibility. These are best suited to corporate crimes such as genocide. Even then, they are not perfect, for they work best when perpetrators are honest and open to change, but they do demand that perpetrators be named, that victims be recognized and their stories heard. When these commissions work well, they enhance healing for individuals and for communities through listening and truth telling.

Restorative justice circles, such as those used in schools, work for individuals and communities. Again, it helps if the perpetrator honestly wants to make amends and change, but regardless, they can mandate amends that actually bring healing to the victim. Putting an offender in prison may keep that person away from a victim, at least for a while, but that does not help the victim move past the trauma and rebuild a life, and most perpetrators leave prison as bitter and angry as ever. Punishment might make us feel good at the moment, but in the long run, it helps no one.

Justice, then, requires accountability, restitution, and restoration.

Religion and Punishment

One reason we resort to punishment may be because many of us equate justice with wrath. The religions of the book – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – encourage this. The God of these faiths, while said to be loving and forgiving, wipes out entire populations, turns Lot’s wife into salt because she turned to look, condemns the infidel, and lets the enemies of his chosen overrun them when they break their covenant. If God is so brutal, why would we be less so?

Yet we read into Scripture what we want to see. Though we in the United States have used the Bible to justify slavery and domestic violence, we have also used it to advocate for the poor and to inspire us to love our enemies. Not everyone considers these books to be sacred, but those who do will interpret them in light of their own worldview, no matter how much they try to be objective.

But it’s not religion that is good or bad. We humans can make great sacrifices for the common good, or we can be magnificently selfish and brutal. Even so, we are better than the worst thing we’ve done, better even that the worst thing we can imagine. At the same time, we are not as good as we like to pretend.

For that reason, we ought to be slow to judge. Oppressors won’t yield power until the oppressed, through persistent protesting, force them to. But winning in this way will not create justice, for true justice requires healing, and healing requires that we be honest about the wounds we carry, listen to one another’s truths, make amends, transform our hurts with care and compassion, and learn to live with grace and civility.

Healing Our Nation

Our country desperately needs healing. Our nation was founded on injustice, with Natives being treated as demons and Africans being stolen from their homes to be owned, as if one could own another human being. Injustice has festered here for too long. We have capitulated to the slaveholders, to those who devised Jim Crow laws, to lynch mobs, to the wealthy and powerful, and to truth twisters.

When will we put human rights and dignity above profit and political gain? When will we reach out to the suffering and offer food, clothes, medicine, and nurturing?

We hate to admit we need help, but we do. All of us do. Justice requires that we receive that help, because to receive help, we must also offer it. This means, we must recognize that we, too, have wounds that need healing. Inside us hurts fester. We don’t like to look them, but if we are to transform our country, look at them, we must.

Healing the Community

Not everyone can examine at their own hurts. Some people deny they need healing. These are usually the especially broken ones, individuals so wounded, that all they can do is look outward, seeing in the world a reflection of what they are afraid may lie within themselves: evil, ugliness, misery, and resentment. Unable to look at the truth of their own hearts, they refuse the love offered them because that love looks to them like their own hatred.

That’s unfortunate, but their very resistance arises out of pain. We need to recognize that. For if we are to heal, not only do we need love, but so do they. We must learn to love our enemies.

Love doesn’t fix everything, however. Sometimes people need to be held accountable. And yet, if love does not inform our attempts to hold them accountable, we will end up with a system of punishment like the one we currently have, a system that oppresses the heart and crushes the spirit.

Let Justice Reign

To be just, accountability must be restorative. It also must be equal, meted out to those who in positions or power and authority at least as often as to those who are poor, vulnerable, and marginalized, because people with power and authority have more responsibility. Thus, when they fail, when they betray their oaths and deceive the people, they need to answer to the entire community. They need to tell the truth, and they need to offer restitution.

Some people will never be able to tell the truth. Being honest hurts. Besides, restoration and healing take time, effort, courage, and collaboration. It’s hard work to transform an individual, nonetheless a nation. But the rewards are worth the effort. If we can be patient and determined enough to love our enemies, while also holding everyone accountable, then true justice will reign in our nation for perhaps the first time.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. King, Martin Luther, Jr., “’I Have a Dream Speech’ In Its Entirety,” NPR, January 18, 2010, https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety, accessed 1/16/21.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. As quoted in Scipioni, Jade, “Michelle Obama: Why Going “High” When Faced with a Challenge Is So Important to Her,” CNBC, February 12, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/12/michelle-obama-on-famous-catchphrase-when-they-go-low-we-go-high.html, accessed 1/16/21.
  5. King, Martin Luther, Jr., “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” published in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948 – March 1963, Carson, Clayborne, Susan Carson, Susan Englander, Troy Jackson, and Gerald L. Smith, eds., Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/when-peace-becomes-obnoxious, accessed 1/15/21.
  6. King, Martin Luther, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html, accessed 1/15/21.
  7. Higgins, Andrew, “How Leaders Bend Reality with Big Lies,” The New York Times, January 11, 2021, A1 and A16, A 16.
  8. Acosta, Joie D., Catherine H. Augustine, Matthew Chinman, Joan Engberg, “What Two New Studies Reveal about Restorative Justice in Middle School and How It Can Be Done Better,” The Rand Blog, April 17, 2019, https://www.rand.org/blog/2019/04/what-two-new-studies-reveal-about-restorative-justice.html, accessed 1/16/21.
  9. Weaver, Jo Lauren and Jacqueline M. Swank, “A Case Study of the Implementation of Restorative Justice in a Middle School,” Taylor & Francis Online, Volume 43, 2020 – Issue 4, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19404476.2020.1733912, accessed 1/16/21.
  10. Acosta.
  11. Fancher, Mark P., “Where Incarceration Isn’t the Answer,” Yes!, November 3, 2020, https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/what-the-rest-of-the-world-knows/2020/11/03/where-incarceration-isnt-the-answer/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=YTW_20210115&utm_content=YTW_20210115+CID_5bfe2c8c00fe9407e4582d33d2e4078a&utm_source=CM&utm_term=Illustration%20of%20an%20incarcerated%20Black%20man%20with%20chains%20on%20his%20hands%20and%20feet%20and%20a%20flock%20of%20crows%20flying%20out%20of%20him%20and%20away%20Illustration%20by%20Irene%20RinaldiYES%20Magazine, accessed 1/15/21.
  12. “How Norway Turns Criminals Into Good Neighbours,” BBC, July 6, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-48885846#:~:text=%22We%20are%20prison%20’officers’,about%2025%25%20after%20five%20years, accessed 1/16/21.
  13. Fancher.

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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