Monday, February 18, 2013

A Prophet For Our Times

A rare photo of MLK addressing a crowd of chassidim. ;)
A few weeks ago the US celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which commemorates the birthday of the renowned civil rights activist. At the time, I set aside some material to read regarding the day's subject matter, one of which was the famed "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", which Dr. King wrote while imprisoned after being arrested for participating in protests against the racial segregation of that city.

It's one of his most celebrated pieces of writing, and justifiably so. Like much of his prose, it's deeply inspiring, eloquently calling upon the populace to take the difficult but morally just path. But it also focuses a lot on the criticisms he'd been receiving from those who opposed his tactics of non-violent protest and who wished he'd take a less confrontational tack in his efforts to effect change. As I read through the letter, I couldn't help being repeatedly struck at the similarities between the arguments which King's opponents (and sometimes even his allies) directed at him, and the attacks which, in our own time, advocates of sex abuse victims so often have to fend off. Despite the fact that they are very different issues, in very different communities, at two very different periods in history, the criticisms are virtually identical. For example, he's questioned as to why he is sticking his nose in matters outside his own community; on why he has to be so confrontational with the established status quo; on the tone of his protests; on why he can't work more in cooperation with the community leadership; on why he can't take things more slowly. And in his letter, he so forcefully responds to these criticisms, highlighting the many entrenched societal and institutional problems that he must do battle with to effect change; problems that are virtually identical to the ones that advocates of sex abuse victims have been dealing with for years.

Over and over, as I read his impassioned appeals lamenting the obstacles he was facing, it amazed me how, if you replace just a few names, places, houses of worship, deities, and the injustice being focused on, it's utterly uncanny how his words could sound like they were being spoken directly to the ultra-Orthodox community of the twenty first century.

I urge everyone to read the original essay in its entirety, but below I've excerpted a number of choice selections that highlight the relevance of his words to the tragic predicament of our current era. Let's hope his timeless message once again inspires a generation to "let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

(Note: In various places I've made some minor edits to trim down the quotes, splice together a few related ones that appear apart, and occasionally add emphasis to a phrase.)

  • On those who feel he's an outsider who shouldn't get involved in matters outside his own community:

    I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in."... I am in Birmingham because injustice is here... I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea.

  • On the reaction of those who are more disturbed by those agitating for change than the actual crimes occuring:

    You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

  • On the broken promises made by the community leadership to properly deal with the issue:

    Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation. Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants--for example, to remove the stores' humiliating racial signs... As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us.

  • On why the agitators have to be so darn confrontational. Why can't they work in cooperation with the establishment?

    You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

    ...we are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

  • On those who praise the establishment for the "progress" it's supposedly made:

    My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals... We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

  • On those who demand that he slow down and give the leaders time to work things out:

    Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

    ...when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

    ...the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is the white moderate who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."

  • On the silent complicity of a community that prides itself on its religious character:

    We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

    I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?... Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency...?"

    In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church.

  • On the moral cowardice of the religious leadership:

    Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue... But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church...

    When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

    In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

  • On the moderates in the community who support him, at least in theory:

    I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's 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... Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

  • On religious leaders who half-heartedly instruct their followers to comply with the law, only because they are legally compelled to do so:

    I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother."

  • On leaders who explain their silence and inaction with the pathetic excuse of the issue not being within their purview:

    In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern."

  • On how people are reacting to the religious leadership's failure to properly respond to this issue:

    ...the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

  • On those few exceptional individuals who have spoke spoken up against these injustices:

    I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

  • On how when those in authority ignore the people who are trying to deal with the issue less drastically, they risk pushing those voices of moderation to employing more extreme measures:

    I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies...

  • On those who praise the establishment authorities for supposedly "dealing with the situation" so well, while willfully indifferent to that same authority's complicity in the suffering of so many:

    In closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes... I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department. It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation... Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public...but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice.


Yerachmiel Lopin said...

Welcome back. You were missed.

Unknown said...

Wonderful and timely collection, thanks for putting it together.

Anonymous said...

Glad you're back, but you attribute the writing of the speech to MLK. Actually MLK"s best stuff might have been written by a guy named Stanley Levison, an alleged Marxist who worked closely with MLK. We don't know for sure, but there's evidence suggesting he was MLK"s ghost writer.

Ichabod Chrain