Back in the 1960s, when I was covering Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights activists for The New York Times, I remember die-hard segregationists hurling an accusation at Dr. King that he was an “outside agitator.”
“You’re comin’ into our town,” they would bellow, whether it was Birmingham or Albany, Georgia or St. Augustine, Florida. “Things were quiet before you came to town. Our people were happy. But you come in here and stir up trouble. You’re agitating our people.”
They made it sound criminal – and in fact, they did arrest Dr. King several times.
Wondering how he would respond, I would go to those mass meetings that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held in black churches all across the Deep South. And eventually, Dr. King would get around to the name-calling.
“Do You Know What an Agitator Is?”
“They call me an agitator,” he would cry out from the pulpit, his voice rising to put force and menace behind the indictment leveled against him. “Well, they’re right,” he came back defiantly. “I am an agitator.”
Then softening, he’d ask puckishly: “Do you know what an agitator is?” For a moment or two, he let the question hang in the air. People looked around at each other, uncertain.
“Well, look inside your washing machine,” he went on. “There’s an agitator in there.” And he would hold out his right arm, crooked at the elbow like a muscle man showing off his might with his fist thrust upward. And then Martin – that’s what his close friends called him – would twist his right fist sharply left-right, left-right, imitating the jerky motion of the shaft inside a clothes washer. “That agitator is in there, stirring up the water, knocking the dirt out of your clothes.”
“Well, that’s what I’m doing,” Dr. King declared, still jerking his fist left-right. And the audience, catching on, would start to giggle. “I’m agitating to knock the dirt out of our society – discrimination, Jim Crow, segregation, racism. So they’re right. I am agitating – agitating to clean up our democracy. That’s what all of us need to do – agitate for a better America, a freer America, a fairer America.”
From the audience came a roar of laughter, understanding and engagement.
Needed: A New Generation of Agitators
Dr. King’s message has direct meaning for us today. For if he were here now, he would be issuing a fresh call for a new generation of agitators – agitators of all ages from millennials to seniors – to come together to fix our flawed and wounded democracy.
He would be calling for a citizens movement to mobilize against the corrosive power of billionaires’ riches buying our elections; of corporations funding candidates with secret rivers of cash flowing through bogus “social welfare” groups; of political parties gerrymandering congressional districts to stack elections unfairly; of state legislatures repressing the vote by requiring voter ID and then shutting down drivers’ license offices in counties where blacks and other minorities predominate.