Fighting for change: why and how

Happy MLK Day everyone.

I just spent the last half hour reading MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  To be totally honest, I don’t think I’ve ever read it in its entirety before.  It is incredibly powerful and moving.  I encourage anyone reading this to take some time with it today. I pulled a few quotes here.

King’s letter makes the case — in exceedingly eloquent and persuasive terms — for nonviolent direct action in the face of injustice.  And discusses the historical precedent and moral imperative for distinguishing between just and unjust laws (including a framework for drawing that distinction), and for disobeying unjust laws.  It hammers home the point that we can’t blindly accept “the law” if we don’t take into account the context in which it was created or the morality and justice of the ends it seeks.

Part of the beauty of it is the guided tour of the history of changemaking, conflict and progress that Dr. King takes us on — all the way from Socrates, to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, to the Holocaust, to of course the Civil Rights movement.  It’s kind of incredible the extent to which we have to learn and re-learn the dynamics of societal norms and the process by which we arrive at and live under the rule of law.  

At the heart of the letter is tension between a moderate “take it slow” approach (embodied at the time by the white southern church, whose leaders the letter was addressed to) and more extreme “force change now” approach (embodied at the time by Elijah Muhammed’s Muslim movement).  King’s articulation of the rationale for a measured and pure — yet intentionally impatient — nonviolent approach is incredibly thoughtful and reasoned.

It’s part inspiration and part how-to for anyone working to create positive change in the face of resistance from the status quo.

I can’t equate the civil rights movement with the digital rights movement, and I won’t do that here.  But that is the corner of the activism world that I sit in, so it’s the lens that I’m reading this through.  And I can’t help but think about the passing of Aaron Swartz, and the path he charted in the pursuit of social justice, as I read Dr. King’s words.  So many of the conversations I’ve been having this past week have revolved around this question of how we view and respond to acts of civil disobedience.

More importantly, I want to use today to reflect on both the (incredible yet entirely incomplete) progress that we’ve been able achieve as a nation since 1963 when this letter was written, and the profound and powerful moral foundation for change that Dr. King’s letter provides.