Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fifty Years On

The scene is the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, established in 1932 by a student of Reinhold Niebuhr's. It was a "communist training school" because it was teaching about race relations and was a center for training civil rights activists. As you can tell from the tenor of the questions of Dr. King, it's pretty clear this is a subversive place: blacks and whites, men and women, are sitting together as equals.


While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine goodwill and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dr. King's letter.  It bears reading in its entirety.  Today is also the day Pat Buchanan wrote this:

When Martin Luther King Jr. called on the nation to “live up to the meaning of its creed,” he heard an echo from a thousand pulpits. Treating black folks decently was consistent with what Christians had been taught. Dr. King was pushing against an open door.

Priests and pastors marched for civil rights. Others preached for civil rights. But if the gay rights agenda is imposed, we could have priests and pastors preaching not acceptance but principled rejection.

Prelates could be declaring from pulpits everywhere that the triumph of gay rights is a defeat for God’s Country, and the new laws are immoral and need neither be respected nor obeyed.

Something akin to this could be in the cards if the homosexual rights movement is victorious – a public rejection of the new laws by millions and a refusal by many to respect or obey them.

The culture war in America today may be seen as squabbles in a day-care center compared to what is coming. A new era of civil disobedience may be at hand.

Dr. King said this in his letter about civil disobedience:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.....

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. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise....

We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"...
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. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. 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."
We have waited for 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 independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are 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. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

I would really like to hear Pat Buchanan explain how laws recognizing gays as human beings are "unjust laws" equivalent to those Dr. King opposed with his words and his body.  I would appreciate seeing him lead a movement of civil disobedience with acts of purification and preparation and intense questions of "are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"  But I really want to know how equal legal treatment for gays and lesbians inflicts on the minority of people who bother to read WorldNet Daily a burden that is not binding on the rest of the country that doesn't bother with such dribble.  And then he can compare his sufferings to those Dr. King outlines above.  I hope he can be just as specific.


  1. Anonymous4:44 PM

    I reread the Letter this morning, and when I read the paragraph excerpted here

    "We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights...[t]here 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....

    - I was reminded of the words of that idiot Rand Paul in his recent address to the black audience at Howard university:

    I think what happened during the Great Depression was that African Americans understood that Republicans championed citizenship and voting rights but they became impatient for economic emancipation.

    Yes, they were indeed impatient, and rightly so, for all the wrenching reasons stemming from their social status as inferior humans which Dr. King so compellingly recounts.

    Paul's speech is an outrageous piece of historical revisionism dripping with unconscious condescension. He completely minimalizes the struggle of blacks in this country - just waves it all away, really - because if blacks truly did struggle then it would be an indictment on Republican emancipatory heroism and there would be no need for Paul to be giving a speech celebrating it to students at a black college. Summing up that bit of hagiographical wonderment:

    ~Republicans heroically freed blacks from slavery. Republicans then treated blacks as complete equals. Sometimes Democrats didn't treat blacks equally so Republicans taught blacks non-violent resistance [! - Ed.]. Blacks got too impatient for "economic emancipation" during the Great Depression [while they were starving -Ed.] and so made a Faustian bargain with Democrats to enslave themselves to the federal government in exchange for the tax dollars of white people. It's now time for blacks to wise up, finally take financial responsibility for themselves, and vote Republican out of gratitude.~

    It really is that bad, and galling to read in the context of Dr. King's own eloquent message. To have bigots like Rand Paul and Pat Buchanan try and co-opt the moral authority and message of those who've struggled and paid the price for freedom in order to serve their own warped agendas is such an offense against justice the very stones would cry out against it were we to keep silent.


  2. Dr. King was pushing against an open door.

    On what planet does Pat Buchanan live?

    Also -- what would civil disobedience against gay rights even look like? Civil disobedience against unjust discrimination is refusing to be discriminated against even if the law throws you in jail for it or worse. But if ministers refuse to marry gays, nothing will come of that. I mean if you refuse to hire someone on the basis of their sexuality, well then you could get sued ... but that's a very different process than having your butt thrown in jail because you refused to comply with an unjust law. In the former, you get to argue your case and if you win you win and if you loose you loose. In the latter you, well, have your butt in jail.

  3. Bayard Rustin was a major influence on The Reverend Martin Luther King jr. instructing him in Gandhian civil disobedience in the 1950s and being one of the main organizers of the March on Washington fifty years ago, refusing to break with him even as the racists used his homosexuality as a weapon against King and the civil rights movement. As a young gay man at the time, I knew about that and it was a major event in my liberation. A racist like Buchanan couldn't use the real King so they have to invent a fake one.

  4. To have bigots like Rand Paul and Pat Buchanan try and co-opt the moral authority and message of those who've struggled and paid the price for freedom in order to serve their own warped agendas is such an offense against justice the very stones would cry out against it were we to keep silent.

    Chris Hayes mentioned several critiques of his critique of Rand Paul's speech to Howard University (many, he said, from people he admired), and all seemed to be of the variety of: "At least Paul spoke to them."

    To which the proper response was: "No, Paul condescended to teach them their own history of which he presumed they were ignorant." And he, of course, was the ignorant one.

    It was a posture quite familiar to those of us who grew up in the world Dr. King fought to change. Unfortunately, while that change occurred (good!), it didn't wipe away the world of racism and bias and prejudice. And the "new generation" that didn't grow up in that world, is already repeating its sins, without even recognizing that they are sins.

    America's hidden wound runs deep, and even when people like Buchanan bring it to the surface, we still don't see how much it wounds us, still.