Seeking perspective on the current chaotic state of U.S. politics, I reread a powerful speech delivered fifty years ago by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in September 1967.
King, who was delivering a keynote speech to the annual conference of the American Psychological Association, noted how psychologists had given the world the notion of maladjusted. “You have given us a great word,” he said, continuing: “There are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted.”
King argued that the powerful, in their efforts to maintain order, actually maintain inequality—tamping down social movements and ignoring the cries of the hopeless as they are expressed by urban unrest.
“We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few,” King insisted. He called for “creative maladjustment,” wherein people refuse to normalize inequality and work continuously to expose injustice so that, “we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”
He urged the academics in attendance to use their scholarship and influence to “tell it like it is.” He said they should produce works that assist in the redemption of an America “poisoned to its soul by racism.” He continued: “All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions—the Negro himself.”
In our present context—the prevalent inequity in the suffering after Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria, and the degenerate response from our country’s leader—King’s words command our attention. They link in a powerful way a seemingly disparate collection of social justice struggles, including removing Confederate Statues, Black Lives Matter, fighting for the rights of undocumented students, the plight of LGBTQ communities, and preserving public education for students.
In an age when we can no longer depend on government officials to deliver on the promises of our founding principles, the call for creative maladjustment commits us to seek solutions outside the system while pressuring it to respond to legitimate demands.
As King conceptualized the problem, “I believe we will have to find the militant middle between riots on the one hand and weak and timid supplication for justice on the other hand.” For King, that middle ground was civil disobedience, which he argued could “be aggressive but nonviolent” with the power to “dislocate but not destroy.”
King’s ideas provide a call to arms for academics and activists in the 21st century—to find constructive points of conversation and also to use dislocation as a catalyst for social engagement that seeks new pathways to combating racism, economic inequality, and oppression.
In late September, more than 200 academics produced a statement on the appalling conditions on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, decrying the poor governmental response. The scholars state, “the destruction brought by Hurricane Maria has exposed the profound colonial condition of Puerto Rico, as millions of human beings are faced with a life or death situation.”
Crowdsourcing educational resources is another example. Widely shared and communally generated documents like the 2014 #FergusonSyllabus, a set of resources for those seeking to confront and explain police violence against black youth. The syllabus connected scholarship to music, art, and culture and has been become a model for conversation and collaboration between scholars and activists.
Creative maladjustment is a tall order, but it does provide an organizing idea around which to channel our efforts. As King explained to those gathered fifty years ago, “It is fashionable now to be pessimistic.” King was nevertheless hopeful.
“Undeniably, the freedom movement has encountered setbacks,” he admitted. “Yet I still believe there are significant aspects of progress.” His desire for scholarship that seized on chaos and disorder to provide forward-thinking solutions to racial prejudice, economic inequality, and political alienation rooted in civil disobedience remains relevant. His words echo with powerful resonance in our own time.
This article was previously published in The Progressive Martin Luther King’s ‘Creative Maladjustment’ Resonates Today.
Yohuru Williams is Professor of History and Dean and McQuinn Distinguished Chair of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. Dr. Williams earned his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Scranton and his Ph.D. from Howard University. He specializes in African American history and has an expertise in Civil Rights/Black Power Movements as well as African American Constitutional and Legal History. Dr. Williams is presently finishing up a single-authored book entitled Six Degrees of Segregation: Lynching, Capital Punishment and Jim Crow Justice, 1865-1960.