Monday, January 21, 2008

Don't Forget the Means

In honor or Martin Luther King Day, I've been leafing back through my copy of his book, Why We Can't Wait.  I'm tempted to post the chapter Letter from Birmingham Jail in its entirety, since it stands as a wonderful synthesis of so much of his philosophy, but instead, I'll link you to it here.  It is easily googled (this really is a seminal text), if for any reason this link is not to your liking.  The book as a whole is magnificent, and his writing is as lucid and inspiring as his speeches.

As I remarked in an earlier entry, MLK jr. is well on the way to being a national hero.  Some might claim giving him his own day is evidence he already is, but there is still some controversy around it.  Nonetheless I'd say a growing majority of the nation recognizes that his tireless and inspiring work played a principle role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  He is recognized as one of the twentieth centuries great thinkers and orators, his words made all the more impressive by having contributed to impressive results. I think there is a growing admiration for what King accomplished, but I fear how he and his followers accomplished it is getting swept under the carpet.  

After resisting the urge to post one entire chapter of his book, indulge me while I quote him extensively from an earlier chapter.  

Fortunately, history does not pose problems without eventually producing solutions.  The disenchanted, the disadvantaged and the disinherited seem, at times of deep crisis, to summon up some sort of genius that enables them to perceive and capture the appropriate weapons to carve out their destiny.  Such was the peaceable weapon of nonviolent direct action, which materialized almost over night to inspire the Negro, and was seized in his outstretched hands with a powerful grip.

Nonviolent action, the Negro saw, was the way to supplement-not replace-the process of change through legal recourse.  It was the way to divest himself of passivity without arraying himself in vindictive force.  Acting in concert with fellow Negroes to to assert himself as a citizen, he would embark on a militant program, to demand the rights which were his: in the streets,on the buses, in the stores, the parks and other public facilities.  

The religious tradition of the Negro had shown him that the nonviolent resistance of the early Christians had constituted a moral offensive of  such overriding power that it shook the Roman Empire.  American history had taught him that nonviolence in the form of boycotts and protests had confounded the British monarchy and laid the basis for freeing the colonies from unjust domination.  Within his own century, the nonviolent ethic of Mahatma Gandhi and his followers had muzzled the guns of the British Empire in India and freed more than three hundred and fifty million people from colonialism.  

Like his predecessors, the Negro was willing to risk martyrdom in order to move and stir the social conscience of his community and the nation.  Instead of submitting to surreptitious cruelty in thousands of dark jail cells and on countless shadowed street corners, he would force his oppressor to commit his brutality openly-in the light of day-with the rest of the world looking on.  

Acceptance of nonviolent direct action was a proof of a certain sophistication on the part of the Negro masses; for it showed that they dared to break with the old, ingrained concepts of our society.  The eye-for-an-eye philosophy, the impulse to defend oneself when attacked, has always been held as the highest measure of American manhood.  We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice.  It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or that to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense...

To the Negro of 1963... it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice.  In addition to being consistent with his religious precepts, it served his need to act on his own for his own liberation.  It enabled him to transmute hatred into constructive energy, to seek not only to free himself but to free his oppressor from his sins.  This transformation, in turn, 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.  (Why We Can't Wait. Martin Luther King, Jr., published 1963: Harper and Row.  pp. 36-38.)

I fear what is getting lost in all this is just how radical this movement was.  Perhaps because it was effective, and the victors write the history books, it's easy to look back on that time and think there was a clarity then that is hard to see in today's conflicts.  'Whites only' facilities?  Open prevention of black votes?  NOT LETTING THEM SIT AT A LUNCH COUNTER?  There isn't any thing to defend there, is there.  It may be easy to believe with 20/20 hindsight that nonviolent action was not merely the most honorable choice, but also the most effective.  It's important to remember that at the time, this movement was considered by many to be dangerous, subversive, or hopelessly naive.  I take great heart in the fact that they remained committed, not because they saw it as the most effective response, but because they saw it first as the most respectful of human dignity, theirs and that of their opponents.  


somewhere joe said...

Left-handed power. "not because they saw it as the most effective response, but because they saw it first as the most respectful of human dignity, theirs and that of their opponents." That's the difference.

And it takes awesome faith, in the face of the obvious effectiveness of right-handed force, to persevere. King had it.

Java said...

That is powerful. I don't know that I've read any King other than the I Have A Dream speech. Shame on me.
The non-violent response is in a way subtle, yet brilliant. What other areas of trouble, conflict, stife in the world or in our own lives can be effectively addressed with counterintuitive action?

Jess said...

If only more chose non-violent protest, instead of subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) inciting destructive means. Many of those who invoke Dr. King's name do so in complete opposition to his values (I'm thinking of some of our local race-baiting politicians and "community leaders"). I hope that the forces of peace continue the struggle for justice. Racism and other forms of discrimination continue, and I will continue to do what I can for my little corner of the world. None of us is perfect, but we must do what we can to fight for what is right.

Remembering Dr. King's work and the leaders of the civil rights movement, what's most profound for me is the bravery of those who led the fight. Yes, anger over injustice will drive action, but the courage needed to face the clear threat of violence and death is unquestionable.

Dantallion said...

I'm always struck by texts like these, and how profoundly powerful the movements that prompted them are. That our understanding of just how radical these events were at the time has diminished has it's positive side, of course - it would no longer occur to most of us that not letting someone sit at a lunch counter because of race could ever and in any context be acceptable.

All of this is that much more striking to me because we never experienced the racial divide that the US has experienced. Of course, we do have some problems with a very, very small minority of biggots here - I suppose every society does, unfortunately. But by and large, most people role their eyes at people like that, and Canada's experience with multiculturalism and racial diversity has been remarkably successful.

Cooper said...

I have read this several times now and let it sink deeply into me. It's the most amazing statement about human dignity that I have ever read. It's all there encapsulated in such powerful words, it has been resonating with me for the past day ... making me ponder, too, how so many people who celebrate this magnificent man fail to take these words and apply them fully to every human being. I pray that one day people will look back at the hate rhetoric towards gay human beings of this time in American history, and feel the same shame and disquiet that they would now feel at denying a black person their full equality.