[Photo Source.]

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” – Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963. 

Article Revised: January 3, 2024

In April of 1963, as he sat in a Birmingham jail cell after peacefully protesting the oppression of Black Americans, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. drew a clear line between action and complacency that has defined social movements since his passing. In his historic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he excoriated “the white moderate” who preferred order to justice and “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” to “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

King’s call out of complacency is instructional for white moderates, but it is also a framework that we can use both internally and externally. In the philanthropic sector, we often imagine ourselves to have passed this lesson; having dedicated our careers to social justice, we become too sure that we are standing on the right side of history. But even as a philanthropic intermediary run by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, Borealis is committed to continuing our learning and understanding of what it means to be good stewards of the resources and talents we are entrusted with and ensure that we are using them to advance towards justice. Today, we are reflecting on Dr. King’s distinction between positive and negative peace with a critical question: Do the assumptions that drive our philanthropic frameworks and investments support the absence of tension or the presence of justice?

MLK Day is the perfect time to reset and refine our intentions as agents of change. To get clear about the sacrifices we are willing to make to live out our mission statements. And to recognize when and where we are willing to cause tension and discomfort for the purpose of creating a more positive peace. We invite you to celebrate the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with us in self-reflection, beginning with the piece below, which examines his life as a radical revolutionary. 

And tomorrow, we get back to work.

When most folks think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, they consider him to be a hero—an activist icon who inspired millions to organize against racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, Dr. King was and still remains, a polarizing figure in our nation’s history. Throughout his tenure as a civil rights leader, Dr. King was largely disliked and like millions of other Black folks in the United States, endured the indignities of racism, threats of violence, and dangerous acts of terrorism. Today, many celebrate his life’s work, while others evoke selective interpretations of his words to uphold or justify inaction on racism, anti-blackness, and socio-economic inequity. 

Dr. King’s legacy is often warped, used as a tool to uphold white supremacy and undermine the very rights he fought for; however, we at Borealis remember, and we issue this reminder that Dr. King was not a moderate, but a radical agitator and organizer who dedicated his life to understanding and educating the masses on the interconnectedness of racism, capitalism, materialism, and imperialism. Today’s movement leaders are building from this legacy by organizing against the continued impacts of decades-long enslavement, chronic segregation, and historic disinvestment. Yet, even with growing public support of their causes—and increased investments in their work—these organizers, like Dr. King, face continued resistance in their fights for justice, and themselves become targets of state-sanctioned surveillance, criminalization, and violence. 

To support these liberatory efforts, it is vital that funders recognize the connection between the activism of yesterday and today—and double down on our investments to protect not only our causes, but also the people behind them.

The Very Real Threat of Violence

Black and white photo of Martin Luther King Jr. holding up his hands.

[Credit: William H. Alden/Getty Images. Source.

“This movement will not stop.” – From his damaged porch following his home bombing in 1956.

While time and distance allow many to water down Dr. King’s legacy to something of a middle class, pacifist, orator, Dr. King remained unwavering in his activism and politics, even as it came at great cost and personal sacrifice.

On January 30th, 1956, just 67 years ago, this cost came at the expense of his family’s safety, security, and lives, when his home was bombed by segregationists while he was away, giving a speech in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Still, King did not waiver. Instead, he doubled down on his mission of striking back against white supremacist terrorism through community organizing and non-violent protest—determined to make America bear witness to its corrupt soul and face the reality that democracy, justice, and freedom cease to exist when the most marginalized are oppressed.

The FBI’s Most Dangerous Negro

Martin Luther King Jr. and others march to integrate schools, Grenada, MS, 1966

[Martin Luther King Jr. and others march to integrate schools, Grenada, MS, 1966. Credit: Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries. Source.]

“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” – At the National Conference on New Politics in 1967. 

In addition to random acts of terror and violence, Dr. King and his comrades were also heavily surveilled by COINTELPRO, a federally-funded FBI counterintelligence program. After giving his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, he was deemed by the FBI director to be “the most dangerous Negro,”  had details of his personal life leaked to the press in an attempt to discredit his work, and received threatening phone calls and letters from racists trying to scare him out of continuing his pursuits. All of this took a toll on his mental and physical well-being, and influenced public perception of his activism. 

The Continued Threat

“All too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” – Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963. 

[On March 28, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., leads a sanitation workers’ protest that dissolved into vandalism. Credit: Associated Press. Source.]

The surveillance, violence, and sacrifices Dr. King faced remain a familiar story for other activists through present day. 

  • During its 15-year run, COINTELPRO was responsible for disbanding the Black Panther Party and imprisoning and killing several of its leaders, including Fred Hampton
  • The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought yet another resurgence of disturbing surveillance tactics. 
  • Technological advancements over the last several decades have heightened the risks involved with movement organizing and protesting. 
  • Law enforcement agencies often use social media, facial recognition software, and phone tapping to keep track of protestors and impede planned demonstrations—and today’s activists are still threatened with police brutality, imprisonment, and violence. 

Organizing Never Goes Out of Style

[Protesters link arms near the makeshift memorial in honor of George Floyd on June 1 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, many wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Credit: AFP. Source.]

“Riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.” – Grosse Pointe High School in 1968.

In 2020, the horrifying murder of George Floyd galvanized millions to rise up against police violence, spurring new commitments from philanthropy. And yet—despite progress among many grassroots leaders to reimagine community safety, police killings reached a record high in 2022, and protesters of state-sanctioned violence became targets of surveillance and criminalization. As funders, it is critical that we acknowledge not only the importance of the work we fund, but also the repercussions activists face by taking it on. 

Throughout history, activists like Dr. King have shown us that every right fought for and won in our country has come through mass mobilization, organizing, and protest. Today, we call on philanthropy to recommit to the ongoing fight for freedom. This fight will continue until we’ve achieved joy, self-determination, and safety for all—and it is our responsibility to resource.

Partnering with Borealis to Advance Justice

Safety for our communities and grassroots organizers is at the forefront of our mission at Borealis Philanthropy. Our Black-Led Movement, Communities Transforming Policing, and Sparks Justice Funds offer core and rapid relief support to folks on the ground to ensure that the threats and violence that have impacted our leaders throughout history do not continue to affect present and future generations. To learn more about how to partner with Borealis Philanthropy to support today’s movement leaders, please contact Maya Berkowitz at mberkowitz@borealisphilanthropy.org.