Righteous Anger, Black Lives Matter, and the Legacy of King

By: Yolanda Pierce

January 16, 2018

Using Martin Luther King, Jr. to Discuss Racial Inequality Today

In her June 1981 keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Storrs, Connecticut, African-American writer and activist Audre Lorde argued that one of the best responses to racism is anger. Stating her belief that anger can serve as “collective surgery” against exclusion, privilege, stereotyping, and betrayal, Lorde also suggests:

“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlying our lives. Anger is loaded with information and energy.”

In our current and historical movements against the forces of white supremacy, we often fail to examine the constructive rage and righteous anger which undergird the emotions of participants in these movements and which galvanizes the movement itself. Because a critical mass of African-Americans were “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer proclaimed before the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, men and women channeled their anger and exhaustion into marches, rallies, boycotts, and political strategies during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. 

This righteous anger at racial terror has a sustained history within the African-American context. Daily acts of resistance against chattel bondage were the natural outcome of sustained anger against the social, cultural, physical, and theological forces which attempted to justify slavery. Uprisings and armed rebellions; work strikes and the breaking of tools; secret societies and hidden worship services were all acts of resistance fueled by a prophetic rage, the righteous anger that is a necessary response to structural injustice. 

As Audre Lorde suggests, against both personal and institutional oppression, anger is an appropriate and human response. Social and political movements have been fueled because of righteous anger at the lynching of fathers and sons. Prophetic rage sparked activists like Rosa Parks to fight against the systematic rape of black women. Holy indignation at political disenfranchisement led to legal challenges against voting restrictions and school segregation. In the 1950s and 1960s, lunch counters, voting booths, church basements, bus depots, public schools, and public streets all became sites in which to deploy an arsenal of anger as demonstrators sang “We Shall Not Be Moved,” along with “We Shall Overcome.”

It is critical to connect the concept of righteous anger to the work of freedom movements because it is easy to sanitize the full scope of a movement and to reduce the activists of the Civil Rights Movement to cardboard characters, instead of fully-human persons experiencing the entire range of human emotions. Yes, many activists who participated in the Civil Rights Movement upheld ethics of non-violent resistance. But the movement itself was extremely violent for those on the underside of history; dogs, water hoses, lynch mobs, and police batons were routinely used to subdue those who dared to challenge unjust laws. And yes, many activists, spurred by their religious faith, upheld love as their highest moral tenet. And yet, that love for all humanity was not antithetical to an anger at injustice. 

In 2018, as we solemnly commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is easy to use his fluency with theological language to sanitize his legacy and to strip away the righteous anger that fueled his work and his co-laborers in the movement. We must absolutely bear witness to King’s dream of a beloved community; his deployment of scriptural references to hope and love; his unabashed optimism that with God, all things were possible. And yet, King was a careful reader of the biblical text and strategic in his deployment of scriptural passages and biblical characters. King constantly evoked the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, like Amos, who stood outside the gates of the city with a message of prophetic rage: get right with God, do it now, or face the repercussions. King’s religious language of justice and righteousness and reaping and sowing are connected to holy promises and holy consequences. God is a God of love and God is a God of justice.

The contemporary movement known as Black Lives Matter may be the cultural and political offspring of earlier freedom movements, including the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement. At its core, Black Lives Matter cultivates the “powerful source of energy” Audre Lorde describes; it is a movement that unapologetically embraces righteous anger and passionate possibilities, most often without the theological language that undergirded earlier movements. And yet, Black Lives Matter is deeply spiritual, even if it is not explicitly religious. The fundamental question of black humanity is at stake in the question “Do black lives matter?” as well as in the declarative statement that “black lives matter.” Made in the imago dei, the image and likeness of God, Black lives matter as distinct individuals and in the interconnectedness of all humanity.

The righteous anger that animates an anti-racist movement like Black Lives Matter calls on individuals to discern if they are paying attention to the systems of injustice surrounding them, the varieties of oppression that exist like the very air we breathe. Why are you not angry about the death of a 12-year-old black child playing in the park, at the hands of law enforcement? How are you not enraged about the myriad ways the modern prison industrial complex perpetuates chattel bondage? Where is your “turn over the tables” anger about environmental racism or black maternal mortality rates or freezing classrooms in Baltimore? Black Lives Matter, as a movement, must contend with a social, cultural, and political world that at first glance looks fundamentally different than the segregationist era of the 1950s and 1960s, but is perhaps, in some crucial ways, more pernicious in its anti-blackness in 2018 than in 1968.

Anger is not the opposite of love. Righteous anger does not preclude the possibility of non-violent resistance. The prophetic work of “turning over the tables” and fighting against the forces of injustice requires the complete range of human capacity, including love, anger, hope, joy, and even moments of despair. There is much truth to be gleaned in James Baldwin’s caveat that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage almost all the time.” The work of current anti-racism movements like Black Lives Matter, as well as the legacy of historical freedom struggles like the Civil Rights Movement, reminds us that we cannot become numb to injustice; we cannot become de-sensitized to racial terror in all its forms. Anger, Audre Lorde suggests, is “loaded with information and energy.” May that energy wake us from our complacency so we build the beloved community of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

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