Why We Can’t Wait — Martin Luther King

9831183Martin Luther King, Jr (1964) Signet

I can’t believe I hadn’t read this before, but how amazing to readjust what I think I know, my ideas of someone I think I know, writing in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, describing 1963 as the great year of revolution when:

The Negro also had to recognize that one hundred years after emancipation he lived on a lonely island of economic insecurity in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Negroes are still at the bottom of the economic ladder. They live within two concentric circles of segregation. One imprisons them on the bases of color, while the other confines them within a separate culture of poverty (23).

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ remains so so powerful. What surprised me most–though it shouldn’t have, because what school will teach this about King?–is just how much time he spends not on white supremacy in its violent forms, but on white liberals and their hindrance of the cause. I feel in many ways this book was written for them, but it is much more scathing than I expected, and doesn’t fail to get to the meat of the matter. I have the impression of King as more conciliatory and more liberal at this point, but that isn’t what you take from the book.

There were two and one-half times as many jobless Negroes as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man. Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice, but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship (24).

There is also less on nonviolence than I expected, but it is good:

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and enobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the Negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro Revolution of 1963.

Yes he does call it a revolution. When he discusses violence as opposed to nonviolence, it is in such a way that you feel if he didn’t believe violence doomed to fail, he’d consider it much more carefully. He knows that struggle is itself a good in the face of so much oppression: ‘The Revolution of the Negro not only attacked the external cause of his misery, but revealed him to himself. He was somebody. He had a sense of somebodiness. He was impatient to be free’ (30). This was not an understanding that could be won through legal battles in the courts. Instead direct nonviolent action was more suited to the times and to what was possible (though carried out to supplement legal strategies, not to replace them). What I also loved is the insight that this transformation ‘had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so’ (38). This is how people move and change and in doing so, change the world.

I loved the many details of the Birmingham campaign, I wish I had read this long ago. While recruiting people for trainings in tactics and nonviolence, Wyatt Walker was mapping out all of downtown Birmingham — each store and its eating facilities, its entrances and exits, number of tables and stools and chairs to determine the number of demonstrators per shop, primary and secondary targets so if one meeting place or route was blocked by the police they had a backup plan. That kind of planning, along with the long preparation of demonstrators to stay strong yet remain nonviolent in the face of violence through trainings and role-playing is what made these campaigns work. My admiration is immense, and it has grown for King who knew so well the nuts and bolts of the campaigns for which I have heard argued he was a figurehead. They started their campaign small–and late for reasons to do with the elections–and ramped it up with 65 nightly meetings. I have to write that again, 65 evening meetings. That’s a hell of a hard pace. Even when you do so much singing.

I also know the prominence of the church should not surprise me, but still, it did. All volunteers had to sign a Commitment Card as part of their training, and all respect to these precepts even as someone not entirely behind nonviolence:

1. MEDITATE daily on the tecahings and life of Jesus
2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory,
3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I love that King noted what a mistake it had been — and not entirely their fault given the circumstance — not to have brought on board the many different local organizations before they started, and his hard work to do so a little belatedly. King’s role as the principal fundraiser for the movement–always a huge concern in social justice worker–is also made clear. I am glad he chose prison over fundraising for bail money, glad that Harry Belafonte is so damn awesome. And glad that he saw that youth and the students were the key to victory.

I was a little confused at the care King takes to defend their actions in defying for the first time an injunction against protest–it would not occur to me to critique anyone for ignoring such a racist and unconstitutional order in Alabama, but clearly, there was much critique from white ‘allies’, prompting a public letter that King responded to in the extraordinary ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ included here. I imagine him sitting in prison finally allowing some of the rage to escape in his description of the suffering a father feels when his children come face to face with prejudice, his descriptions of the daily struggle must have brought the relgious figures censuring him to their knees. Other highlights:

I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth (79).

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light…but 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 (80).

We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independance, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter (81).

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councils 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 (84-85)

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 (86).

Amazing. I was also not expecting–and loved–this:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society…. It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness….Our history teaches us that wielding the sword against racial superiority is not effective…On the other hand, history also tecahes that submission produces no acceptable result. Nonresistance merely reinforces the myth that one race is inherently inferior to another (120).

A final note, though there is so much more here. It’s almost a throw-away line, but King notes that the African-American movement has become strong enough that it can now have allies, it can make its own commitments that it can deliver and have equality in that it will still be powerful if its allies walk away. This is core to some of the later theorizing, by Stokely and Carmichael and Julius Lester for example, of how to built movement. I like that King said it too. For all their differences, they had so much more in common in terms of hope and vision and audacity than most of them have with leading figures in these sad days.



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