Monday, January 18, 2010

Dr. Martin Luther King Wasn't A Darling Of The Establishment

Many of you only have a sense of Dr. Martin Luther King as a sort of martyred elder statesman, someone who expressed what have become platitudes about morning in America that are frequently co-opted by the southern right to show that we should no longer see race, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Dr. King was a rebel, a troublemaker, whose life work was pushing the establishment to do the right thing.

Forty-seven years ago he wrote one of the pieces you don't often hear quoted in dulcet tones. He was a young 34 years old. The established clergy in Alabama had issued a statement called on him to stop stirring the pot, to cease demonstrating for civil rights. It said in part (emphasis added)

We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.

In response Dr. King wrote to those clergymen what is now known as his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," a statement with a jail cell, not the Lincoln Memorial, in the background. This is the point of Dr. King's legacy. He says "I am here 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.

Think about the notion that we are all of a piece, that what affects one affects all. A radical notion totally rejected by what used to be the right but what is now considered to be the center. He insists that moderation is the enemy saying

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; 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 man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." 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.

Let me repeat that last part -- "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." yet that is what we are constantly called on to accept.

Gay people who want to marry are told that they should live with civil unions and be grateful for the crumbs. Formerly middle class people who express dissatisfaction with corporate executive salaries are supposed to be grateful for having jobs.

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.

Perhaps most importantly

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself
because ultimately Dr. King's work and life was about upsetting the status quo, about pushing against the established order in an effort to create something better. That is why he was killed instead of ignored.

Read the letter if you haven't or read it again if it has been a while. Spend a few minutes thinking about the purpose of Dr. King's life and death.


ilse said...

"Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (as well as the letter to the editor from various religious leaders to which King was responding) was required reading for my AP class this year. It is an incredibly powerful piece of rhetoric.

Side note: discuss the significance of the fact that the AP kids read King but the on-level kids read Malcolm X.

Sasha said...

Discussion: Even in the most enlightened of counties there are incredible racists.

Add any other notions you wish.

(I'm also glad that they read ANYTHING.)