Remembering the King: Nonviolence and Racial Justice
Dr. Derek King, Sr. joined the list of eminent speakers to share his wisdom at the first biennial Desmond Tutu Center Conference. In a session entitled “Remembering the King: Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” he introduced a documentary telling the story of the 1963 Children’s March of Birmingham, AL, and followed the documentary with an engaging question and answer session. Dr. Terri Jett of Butler University’s Political Science Department introduced Dr. King to the audience.
King, Sr. is a nephew of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the celebrated Civil Rights leader and proponent of nonviolence. King, Sr. carries on his uncle’s legacy as a practitioner of the Kingian Nonviolence Curriculum. Kingian Nonviolence, as defined by practicing institution Positive Peace Warrior Network, “is a philosophy and methodology that provides the knowledge, skills, and motivation necessary to pursue peaceful strategies for solving personal and community problems.” Through this philosophy, King, Sr. promotes reconciliation over conflict resolution, believing that resolution often brings a sense of false peace. He added, “If we ever need to do some reconciling, it is certainly imperative in the times in which we live.”
King, Sr. introduced the documentary Mighty Times: The Children’s March, which explored the growth of resistance to Jim Crow by the children of Birmingham, Alabama. Following a disappointingly lackluster response from local activists to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 imprisonment in the Birmingham Jail, from which he wrote his famous letter advocating for nonviolent resistance to racism, Dr. King, Jr. and his fellow organizers decided that in order to effectively expose the hypocrisy and abusive tactics of local police, they needed to “fill the jails.” In a church gathering, the organizers sought volunteers who would willingly commit simple acts of civil disobedience. Startlingly, only children volunteered. Beginning on May 5, 1963, hundreds of African American children walked out of school and gathered at the 16th St Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. Police began arresting children by the school bus, eventually placing 973 children in jail on that first day. Despite his reservations at allowing children to place themselves in harm’s way, Dr. King, Jr. reflected that the children were “doing a job for all America, and all of mankind.”
Over the next three days, the children of Birmingham continued to skip school and gather in the city’s center to protest. Birmingham’s police and fire departments began implementing ever more brutal tactics in order to disperse the protests, including the use of fire hoses and vicious police dogs. One protester reflected on their experiences in jail: “They treated us as they did the livestock,” filling the jails past capacity until even the jail yards were full. Despite this, many participants in the Children’s March, now adults, gave testimony that demonstrated a strong faith in each other and their cause, and a remarkable lack of fear. Instead of fear, they demonstrated a surprising sense of humor.
During the question and answer session that followed the documentary screening, a member of the audience asked King, Sr. about the sense of humor and joyfulness displayed by the children of Birmingham. King, Sr. responded that children remain our secret weapon, in large part because of their sense of selflessness. He advocated for an increased focus in today’s social justice movements on creating dialogue with young people. Much of King, Sr.’s advice to audience members centered around creating dialogue. When one audience member asked how to get people to come together around an issue, King, Sr. responded that one must “find the place in a person’s consciousness where they will allow a dialogue to begin.” Even with a developed knowledge of how to create such a dialogue, though, King, Sr. recognized that not everybody can be reached. He advised listeners to “save who you can, reach who you can,” but not to take rejection personally.
The final question of the night came from one of the Desmond Tutu Center’s very own Youth Fellows, Diana Posades. She acknowledged that fear can inspire people to make reckless decisions. How, she asked, do you help young people to not be fearful? King, Sr. responded, “never underestimate the power of one.” This last piece of advice recalls an important element of the story of the Birmingham Children’s March – while the children of Birmingham who resisted the police during those few days in 1963 presented a united front, that front was composed of individual young people who demonstrated astonishing bravery and selflessness in the name of a noble cause.
In this inspiring session of the DTC Conference, King, Sr. contributed an important knowledge of social justice history, and a valuable understanding of how to use those lessons of the past in our current struggles.
By: Olivia Pratt
Session Partners: American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana