George Floyd, Martin Luther King and the Paradox of Transformational Change

We are witnessing what King called exposure of injustice to “the light of human conscience.”

Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

“Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will,” Frederick Douglass famously said in 1857. Over a hundred years later, in his book Strength in Love, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And the paradox of any transformational change is that both statements are true and need to coexist.

Indeed, Martin Luther King himself perfectly understood this paradox. In 1963, in his powerful “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which is as poignant today as ever, he lamented the failure of “the white moderate” to “understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.” He wrote about the “deep groans and passionate yearnings” for justice and the need for injustice to “be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” 

Right now, this inflection point in our history precipitated by the murder of George Floyd, forever captured on cell phone video, and the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, has forced many of us in white America to finally recognize that millions of our fellow citizens are effectively living in a different world — a different America — than we are.  

Of course, these tragic killings are just the latest in a long line of systemic racial injustice that goes back hundreds of years, but there is something major and urgent happening right now. It is a perfect storm of one crisis jumping on top of another: the latest killings on top of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of long standing health disparities on top of growing racial inequalities on top of a criminal justice system that has led to African Americans being more than five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated — and close to 10% of Black men in their 30s behind bars on any given day.

“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured,” wrote Martin Luther King 57 years ago, but he might as well have been writing today. 

We are witnessing this exposure of injustice to the light of human conscience in real time. And the only cure is action — including, of course, legislative action. Across the country, from Atlanta and San Francisco to Kansas City and Chicago and from Colorado and Connecticut to Maryland and Arizona, lawmakers are moving reforms around police accountability and transparency to the front burner. Here is just one example. This week, I was talking to New York State Assemblyman and candidate for Congress Michael Blake, who represents the 79th District in the Bronx and is working to repeal New York State Law 50-A, which shields disciplinary records of police officers. Legislators in Albany have been considering a bill to repeal 50-A for five years in a row. But the fact that Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was the subject of 18 prior complaints filed with the Minneapolis Police Department’s Internal Affairs, and another of the officers present had six — including one that was still open — may turn the tide. “This reform will have the most immediate impact on justice,” Blake told me. 

If 50-A is repealed it will be only because the anguish and the anger fueling nationwide protests have finally turned up the heat. There is a perfect historical parallel for this. In March 1965, in an effort to push for voting rights legislation, Martin Luther King met with President Lyndon Johnson. But L.B.J. was convinced he didn’t have the votes needed for passage. King left the meeting certain that the votes would never be found in Washington until he turned up the heat in the rest of the country. And that’s what he set out to do: produce the votes by getting the people to demand it. Two days later, the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation in Selma — in which marchers were met with tear gas and truncheons — captured the conscience of the nation. Five months after that, on August 6, L.B.J. signed the National Voting Rights Act into law, with King and Rosa Parks by his side. 

At that March meeting, L.B.J. didn’t think the conditions for change were there. So King went out and changed the conditions. And now the people marching in the streets around the country are changing the conditions. Campaigns like 8 Can’t Wait are educating citizens about their own cities’ law enforcement policies and giving them tools to contact their elected officials. And as Assemblyman Blake told me about the New York reform bill, “heat on the street is making it more likely that the bill will pass.”

Heat on the street has been accompanied by extraordinary outpourings of support and solidarity: police officers in St. Paul and Atlanta hugging protesters, a police officer in Buffalo singing “We Shall Overcome” to protesters, young people in Brooklyn bringing food to protesters, while 9-year-old Kamryn Johnson in Minneapolis raised $20,000 for struggling families by selling handmade bracelets.

Again, the paradox: turning up the heat in the streets, without which nothing seems to ever change, while at the same time building regenerative pathways of empathy and understanding. And remembering, as Nelson Mandela, who ended another struggle against injustice, wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that “No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” A change in our laws and policies has to come hand in hand with a change in our hearts. 

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