I read this book in two distinct stages. The first chapter was slow going, and I put it down for a week or so. Partly because I was grappling with the question of how much a cliché of an ally it made me to read MLK during Black History Month, and partly because I just didn’t know what I expected from the book. Not being American, my overall perception of MLK is that he’s the person that solved racism and ended it and gets quoted once a year on Twitter by those who’d gladly see all of his work undone.
When I picked the book back up again, I finished it within the day. King’s words are as hauntingly relevant now as they were when he wrote them. The books subtitle of chaos or community refers to the struggle within the civil rights movement between non-violent protest and all out riots. It is a question just as relevant today as the narrative surrounding the protests of 2020 was quickly flipped into one of “civil unrest.” While MLK advocates for a non-violent approach, he recognizes the realities that push a community into riots, and recognizes that that choice isn’t entirely theirs. Rather, he sees a riot as the logical conclusion of a group that is continually stripped of power and dehumanized. The internal struggle is not to avoid arriving at that point, but to organize and apply non-violent pressure to ensure the communities goals are realized before that point is reached. MLK’s assessment of the white reactions to Black riots is also just as applicable in the 2020’s as it was in the 1960’s, stating “He who contends that he “used to love the Negro, but …” did not truly love him in the beginning, because his love was conditioned upon the Negroes’ limited demands for justice.” How often have we heard friends and family say “I supported them until they broke the window of that Sephora…”
My over-riding takeaway from this whole book is that the Martin Luther King we see through the distillation of official statements, and media pieces, is a watered-down version of a wise and tenacious fighter. He may have “had a dream,” but he also had a plan. Starting from the premise that the initial granting of “civil rights” was nothing more than an agreement to no longer torture the Black people but as for everything else they were on their own, King offers concrete steps toward the building of community, including, yes, reparations, in the form of a higher tax on the wealthy being put towards real social housing. Housing that contains community resources and businesses rather than just dilapidated accommodations.
I will tell everybody I know to read this book. I think it’s required reading for planners and should be read hand-in-hand with the Color of Law. It is both a hopeful roadmap for how to improve our communities, and a damning indictment of how we have not.
As always, you can keep up with me on Goodreads here. For this book, I made all of my highlights public so you can see the portions I found most insightful or useful.