Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Those of us who are in nonprofit, philanthropy, and other fields focused on making the world better rely on his words as a beacon for our work. Which is why this week we will be inundated with MLK quotes.
Before we quote him, though, let’s do some serious reflections about Dr. King and what he said and what he stood for. Otherwise, we run the risk of choosing the least controversial quotes, the ones that don’t make us uncomfortable or force us to confront our privileges or change the way we do things. Then we feel good about ourselves and continue perpetuating the injustice he fought against.
Below are a few of his quotes that are less seen, less examined, or more often conveniently ignored by leaders, by the general public, and even by those of us committed to doing the work of advancing justice. Thank you to journalists and writers who compiled MLK’s more radical quotes (here, here, here, and here). I am interpreting what they mean for those of us in nonprofit and philanthropy, and how they should guide our work. These are just my interpretations, so please feel free to disagree, and to add other quotes that you think are relevant for our sector:
“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism […] The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of Black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor—both Black and white, both here and abroad.”
“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
So much of our work of fighting injustice ironically reinforces it because we fail to understand and refuse to acknowledge that inequity and injustice stem significantly from capitalism. Charity and philanthropy prop up capitalism by allowing society to pave over the fact that significant wealth has been built on capitalism-driven forms of injustice including slavery, imperialism, colonization, stolen Indigenous land, genocide, worker exploitation, and environmental degradation.
We need to acknowledge that capitalism is one of the root causes of the inequity we’re all trying to fight. And we need to stop legitimizing capitalism through our habit of charity- and philanthropy-washing its harmful practices. For example, we must stop praising corporations for “donating” money to nonprofits and instead work to ensure they make reparations, stop exploiting their workers, and pay their fair share of taxes.
“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
Nonprofit and philanthropy are predominantly white, and where there is the highest level of power we find the highest concentration of whiteness. Which is why foundation CEOs and foundation boards of trustees are almost entirely white. White people, at whatever level of power, must constantly fight this delusion Dr. King talks of, which is the delusion that meritocracy exists and that the world is essentially fair and just.
In our sector it manifests in white foundation leaders choosing whom to fund based on who can write the best grant proposal and code-switch the most effectively, not on which communities are most affected by systemic injustice and have the greatest needs. It manifests in white donors and looking down on organizations led by communities of color because they can’t play the game like sending personalized thank-you notes as fast as white-led orgs.
To do our work effectively, white allies must get out of the delusion that the world is fundamentally fair and that a “level playing field” currently exists. It does not, and it never will if we continue to buy into this illusion of meritocracy that has seduced many people in our profession.
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Our sector, and society in general, has leaned into the first part of this quote, which is that philanthropy is commendable. Organizations and businesses have formed to help people engage in philanthropy. Foundations become influential machines. Wealthy people who donate money are celebrated. Fundraisers are trained to tell donors how amazing and generous they are. We conveniently overlook the second part of the quote, which is that philanthropy, fundraising, and nonprofits often exist because of inequitable systems that cause wealth disparity and poverty in the first place.
We must stop deluding ourselves into thinking philanthropy is good, that its existence is indicative of the presence of generosity, instead of what it often is: the prevalence of inequity. We must stop striving for a “culture of philanthropy” as if it were a good thing. We need to work toward a society where philanthropy is not necessary at all, and many nonprofits and foundations, fundraisers and donors, have no reason to exist.
“I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
After the police murdered George Floyd, there were protests. Instead of acknowledging the injustice against Black people and their justifiable demands to be seen and heard that manifested in the protests, many people, including in this sector, focused on condemning the harm to property, missing the point entirely. People in power, who are mostly white, cannot hear it when those they marginalize and oppress ask nicely and are courteous. The result is that oppressed people and communities must often deploy more-assertive means to get the point across.
In our work of addressing systemic injustice, the people in power (foundations, donors, white-led nonprofits, white allies, etc.) must be thoughtful instead of reactive when these more-assertive methods are used by those from marginalized backgrounds. Take time to try to understand what message is being conveyed, and for how long have people and communities been desperately trying to convey the message.
“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
For so long, the progressive-leaning wing of our sector has refused to see the importance of the work of building political and economic power in communities who have been most oppressed by systemic injustice that results from white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. Many nonprofits refuse to engage in advocacy. Many foundations refuse to fund it, going so far as to prohibit advocacy and lobbying in their grant contracts.
But we cannot solve problems by only responding to the symptoms. Our fear and disdain of political engagement for decades have resulted in the proliferation of the injustice we are claiming to fight, and it gets worse the more we keep ignoring political reality and insisting on remaining above the fray.
Foundations must provide more funding for protecting voting rights, ending gerrymandering, stopping political corruption, and electing more progressive women of color into office. And ALL foundations and ALL nonprofits must all be engaged in these vital levers of change, no matter their mission.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another’s man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’”
This is one of the most essential of Dr. King’s quotes for anyone who seeks to make the world better. I have written about it, related links below. It’s the well-meaning white moderates (and moderates of color), who are the biggest barrier to justice, more so than even the people wearing hoods, burning crosses, or being otherwise overtly racist. And our entire sector has become a giant spiral of white moderation.
In nonprofit and philanthropy, it is the foundations who are more concerned about existing in perpetuity than about ending injustice. The fundraisers, executive leaders, and board members more upset that we might offend potential, and usually white, donors than about addressing wealth inequity. The white allies calling for civility and pragmatism.
The pull of white moderation is strong and often many of us do not realize that we have been trapped in its orbit, causing us to be more concerned with order and the lack of tension than true justice. Every organization and foundation must take a look at itself, examine where it is falling into white moderate tendencies, and find a way to extricate itself.