The meaning of this is obvious, if we were to allow injustice to fester it will grow and become contagious. In Martin Luther King’s context, injustice was being done to the African American community in Alabama, and though he was based in Atlanta he had decided to travel all the way to Alabama and even faced persecution there. Whether we see justice as fairness or liberty, the African American community was getting neither. As Martin Luther King eloquently puts this himself, black children were not allowed to go to amusement parks reserved to white children while the African American community were constantly reminded of their oppression, through not only segregation by the institutions meant to serve them, but violence by those very same institutions. For him therefore, it was necessary to fight injustice in Alabama, not only so that it does not spread everywhere but to make clear his intolerance towards injustice anywhere.
Most would agree with the quote from Martin Luther King, but it is hard to do it in practice. King was able to put his words into action because the injustice he was fighting was specific to the United States. Though the oppression of those deemed of ‘African descent’ is prevalent in most non-African countries then and even today, his strategies, words and actions were made specifically to tackle the problems in America.
Why then would this be the case? Martin Luther King had after all, talked about injustice ‘anywhere’. Is it then hypocritical of him to focus on America at the time? The common argument for the proponents of the status quo would often posit that whatever injustice is happening in the West, something of similar transgression but larger in scale is happening in some developing country. A few years after this time for example, a United States-backed genocide would happen in Indonesia and though those responsible for the atrocities would insist it was an ideological conflict, it was obvious from the casualties of the Chinese minority that it also took a racial dimension. Would King’s efforts be better suited to fighting this injustice instead because of the scale?
The obvious answer is of course no. For one thing, fighting against injustice in Indonesia by an American is impractical. We can reasonably assume that an average American does not have adequate knowledge about Indonesia’s political structure, racial tensions and cultural norms to be able to have the nuance needed to tackle the problem. In fact, American intervention had exacerbated the problem in the first place. Though a person could possibly learn all these things over the course of their life, it is much more practical for a person to tackle the problems in a political environment that they understand, not only through the pursuit of knowledge but also by being raised in that political environment in the first place.
Another problem of course is familiarity, not only of the political environment but also of the community that are facing the injustice. Human beings are communal, and one advantage Martin Luther King had in fighting justice in America was that he was a respected member of his community, not just because he was a preacher but also his leading role in the ideological battle in the Civil Rights Movement. A lack of familiarity with the community, though unfortunate, would be a major disadvantage because he would have been impeded by a lack of trust and a supportive network to efficiently organise the movement.
It is also practical in the sense that Martin Luther King was in a much better position to influence politics in the Unites States than he would be in Indonesia. Though theoretically he would have fought for rights in Indonesia, major barriers still exist such as nationality, language and ability because of knowledge. He does not have the knowledge of language and culture to communicate these needs effectively, he does not have the political capital of being a respected member of that society and those against what he stands for could easily dismiss him as a foreign agent considering his nationality.
The response towards this reaction should not be to force justice onto them however, especially considering that even with proper research, planning and other careful considerations, attempts at helping bring justice to a community that we are so far removed from always falls short and instead often makes things worse. Ultimately, King’s words do not really say that we as individuals should work to stop injustices from happening everywhere. The problem with viewing it that way in the first place is that it often leads to sanctimonious and often hypocritical mindsets in which an obstinate type of morality is forced onto societies that are just unable to fight back. Numerous moral crusades turned imperial expeditions of the West all too vividly remind us of the consequences of having these mindsets.
A good interpretation of King’s words would be thus not to personally stop the encroachment of injustice everywhere but to never tolerate it especially if practicality and ability prevent us from taking any meaningful actions. As obvious as this may be, people too frequently tolerate injustice if nothing can be done by them, either as a coping mechanism or pure apathy in anything they are not directly a part of. This is possibly another reason for the obsession to take action even if those actions will probably aggravate situations further. It is ridiculous to assume that any society lack individuals who are willing to fight injustices wherever they may appear. So rather than trying to appease some saviour complex that dictate we should constantly intervene at the slightest sign of trouble, we should instead amplify the voices of justice that is so widespread if we know where to look.
The idea is thus not to sit around and wait for injustice to be over but to let justice spread faster than injustice could. Again, it is simply not practical to expect anyone to dedicate their lives to helping everyone at any time. To stop injustice ‘anywhere’ is therefore not to be everywhere at once but to not tolerate injustices ever.