Diagnosing ADHD: Mental Health and Human Rights

Playground adventures. Source: BrownZelip, Creative Commons

Mental health is a topic that is becoming increasingly recognized as an important public conversation.  It is usually focused on depression and anxiety and is often overlooked in the context of human rights. It is important to recognize that mental health is a public health issue, and therefore a human rights issue. Mental health has an irrefutable impact on an individual’s physical health and their quality of life.  It can also harm their ability to receive an education. This blog will discuss Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and the issues created by the stereotypes and stigmas related to mental health.

Conditions like ADHD are frequently given a specific popularized depiction. Though the depiction may not be entirely incorrect, it is rarely inclusive of all the individuals experiencing these conditions.  When people think of ADHD for example, they often think of a boy with a lot of behavioral problems and poor grades.  The fact of the matter is that people with ADHD can be any gender and can have any kind of experience in school. Using stereotypes to inform our ideas about the people who have certain conditions impacts if and when people who have these conditions are able to receive a diagnosis and treatment. Because of this, girls with ADHD are frequently unaware of what they are experiencing.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a disorder that results from the way the brain develops.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood.”  It is very important to understand that ADHD is not merely a behavioral issue.  It is a condition that cannot be punished away.  ADHD brains work differently than brains without ADHD.  ADHD brains lack a sufficient amount of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that transport signals in the brain.  They are like filters for your brain.  Dopamine helps to regulate the reward center of the brain, movement, and emotional responses. Norepinephrine strengthens signals that are relevant and important while blocking information that is unnecessary.  Medicines that treat ADHD typically aim to support the circulation of these neurotransmitters in the brain.  These medicines decrease the frequency of the symptoms of ADHD, though they do not eliminate them.

In addition to the symptoms related to impulsiveness and inattentiveness, the lack of filter ADHD causes in the brain can lead to sensory overload, which can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.  When this occurs, one becomes overwhelmed by all of the noises you hear, the things you see, and the things you feel.  You notice everything around you, including the things that are unimportant.

Depending on an individual’s personal symptoms and experiences, they may have one of three different types of ADHD. One type of ADHD is the “Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation”.  This type can involve a lot of fidgeting, feelings of restlessness, and an unusually large amount of impulsive behavior, such as interrupting people.  Another type of ADHD is the “Predominantly Inattentive Presentation”.  This type often involves forgetfulness and difficulties in fully absorbing new information.  The third and final type is called the “Combined Presentation” and involves experiencing the symptoms of the other types equally.

Differences Between Boys and Girls With ADHD

Girls are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys are, though they are not less likely to actually have it. One study, using data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, found that children whose parents reported ADHD behaviors and who were undiagnosed were girls more often than boys.  Because of this, girls with ADHD are more likely to go untreated than boys are.  The differences in how boys and girls experience ADHD contribute to the underdiagnoses of girls. Another study, which combined the results of 8 prior studies to have a sample of 772 boys and 325 girls, suggests that boys with ADHD are more likely to display symptoms of impulsivity that girls with ADHD are, based on the children’s performances on “Continuous Performance Tests”. Symptoms of impulsivity are often easier to recognize than inattentiveness and result in behaviors that catch people’s attention.  Inattentiveness, which girls more frequently experience, does not lead to behaviors that are as disruptive as the behaviors of impulsivity.

Children in a classroom reading with their teacher.
students-in-class-with-teacher-reading. Source: Ilmicrofono Oggionom, Creative Commons

Why It Matters

ADHD is highly connected to the issue of mental health. According to one study, girls with ADHD are more likely to experience comorbid disorders such as depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder than girls who do not have ADHD. Individuals with ADHD may internalize what they are going through, blaming themselves and feeling like what they are going through is their own fault.  They may externalize what they are going through, impacting the way they interact with other people and their environments.  Internalizing and externalizing behaviors occur in individuals with ADHD regardless of the existence of a diagnosis but being undiagnosed can make the situation more difficult.

The possibility of being diagnosed with ADHD is also impacted by many social determinants. Social determinants are defined as “conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age.” They lead to avoidable health disparities. It is important to recognize social determinants when it comes to mental health and human rights, because they highlight the fact that people of different backgrounds do not have access to the same resources. Factors that are out of an individual’s control impact their ability to access their human rights and maintain a good quality of life. By identifying social determinants, we can begin to identify changes that can be made to diminish injustice in the world. For example, even the country that someone with ADHD lives in can impact the chances that they will be diagnosed.

In France, 0.5% of children are diagnosed with ADHD, while about 12% of children in the United States receive a diagnosis. Different countries around the world have different views of ADHD, affecting their rates of diagnosis and the methods of treatment. The treatment of ADHD in France frequently involves prioritizing methods such as therapy and family counseling over medicines. In Germany, it is likely that students with ADHD benefit from the “outdoor component” of their education, as being outside can be more favorable for them than a traditional classroom. The United States relies more heavily on using medicinal methods to treat ADHD.

Another social determinant that impacts treatment is socioeconomic status. Even if a child in poverty has received a diagnosis, it is still possible that they cannot afford treatment. If they are uninsured, it would be difficult for them to access medication or therapy. Race also acts as a social determinant. The results of one study suggest that there is a large disparity in ADHD diagnosis and treatment that negatively impacts African-American and Latinx children.  According to the study, it is more likely that the disparity is due to African-American and Latinx children being underdiagnosed and undertreated than white children being overdiagnosed and overtreated.

Social determinants like nationality, socioeconomic status, and race can be barriers to a child’s diagnosis and treatment for conditions like ADHD. These factors are out of the child’s control and create disparities that cause further harm.  Even if an individual knows what a problem is, they cannot work towards alleviating it if they do not have the resources they need. If a black girl is born is born into a New York family in poverty, she may lack the ability to spend time outside, receive certain medications, or go to therapy. She would not have access to the same resources as children from families with higher incomes or different geographical locations. This injustice feeds into comorbid disorders and has a negative impact mental and public health, as emotional issues can develop from being able to understand the injustice.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to education (Article 26) and the right to an environment that promotes health and wellbeing (Article 25), along with many others.  Access to these rights is limited when individuals with conditions like ADHD are unable to seek treatment, whether that treatment be medicinal or a form of counseling.  The effect that these conditions have on one’s mental health makes a significant difference. Education is one of the human rights that is fundamental to growth and flourishing in life.

We, as a global society, must recognize the relationships between mental health, public health, and human rights. They are not isolated issues. The way we approach one impacts the outcomes of the others.  Mental health is a part of public health, impacting an individual’s physical health and their quality of life. Both mental health on its own and public health as a whole are largely influential in one’s ability to access their human rights. Everything is connected.

“Wonder”: Bullying Redefined

a picture of boxing gloves
Boxing gloves. Source: Franz Kohler, Creative Commons

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Saying and repeating this mantra is a daily occurrence on some playgrounds and households. The harsh reality is words do hurt because the bruises and wounds they inflict remain in the core of the psyche and being. A video of Keaton Jones set the world of social media ablaze on his behalf late last year. Jones, a middle-schooler from Tennessee, tearfully retold his experience with bullies during the day. There is a temptation to turn Jones into a “poster child for inspiration porn”; thereby negating the reality that being different remains a negative within some societies, including America. Siblings bully each other by calling one another names, coworkers often haze the newbies, jocks put nerds in lockers, and presidential candidates mock journalists with disabilities. In other words, we are in the midst of a bullying epidemic.

Epidemic is generally used to describe the spread of an infectious disease, one that is seemingly out of control. Society fails to view the unintended consequences of words as part of an epidemic that spans the public and mental health sphere, and reaches into the realm of human rights. The ultimate issue with this bullying epidemic is that it infringes on the individual’s (or group’s) right to a peaceful environment. Humiliation and marginalization, fueled by a desire for control, are the ultimate effects projected onto countless targets. These effects, often times, cause targets to make irreversible and life changing decisions like 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis and 13-year-old Rosalie Avila who both committed suicide after copious amounts of schoolyard and online bullying they endured. Their deaths speak to a direct need for awareness and prevention tactics in the classroom, family, and society. The words bully and bullying have a stereotype and stigma that leads many individuals to make assumptions that seek to label the bully rather than their actual behavior. The misapplication of labels, placed on a bully, dehumanizes their personhood rather than their behavior. This blog examines the interplay between the assumptions and realities of the bullying persona.

R.J. Palacio wrote Wonder following an encounter with her child and another in an ice cream shop. Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a 10-year old boy, who is blighted by a severe facial deformity. Because of his deformity, his peers and often times other adults are cruel to him. As Auggie starts middle school, his peers find his appearance off-putting so they choose to isolate him. The school culture created an environment where ostracism is the result of not fitting in. The bullying behavior begins with isolation and badmouthing by his peers. The story begins to take a turn when one of Auggie’s friends, Jack, is caught making fun of him. Jack so desperately wants to fit in that his lack of self-confidence influences his courage and willingness to defend Auggie when others are badmouthing him. Jack is a classic example of the bystander role. Many of us find ourselves witnessing a bullying situation and we, more than not, choose to ignore the situation or join in on the bullying. Jack’s betrayal of Auggie cuts so deeply that he holes himself up in the bathroom in tears.

Auggie’s reaction is common. Much like Keaton Jones, those on the other end of a bully’s action and/or words do not understand why others are so cruel. Ultimately, in the book, Jack and the others in Auggie’s grade realize that it is better to choose kindness. They rally around Auggie and accept him as one of their own. They see all of the values he possesses and admire him for his courage and perseverance. This story is an example of what bullying awareness can bring; unfortunately, bullying situations do not always end so positively.

a face that is angry
anger. Source: Shaun Chin, Creative Commons

Bullying is a multi-faceted phenomenon, influenced by many factors that not easily explained. It is a unique and complex form of interpersonal aggression. Aggression takes many forms and manifests in different patterns of relationships; it is a show of oppression in an attempt to gain power over another individual. Coincidentally, bullying behavior is not just the result of individual characteristics, but influenced by multiple relationships with peers, families, teachers, neighbors, and various other interactions with societal influences. It is important to note this distinction in order to equate a bully’s actions to be a result of their personal psychology and their interactions with the environment.

Bullying can be broken down into two categories. The first form of bullying occurs when the bully and their target are in the presence of one another. This is direct bullying and observable when a bully physically or verbally harasses their target directly. Spreading rumors is a method of indirect bullying because the aggressive behavior occurs ‘around’ the target. Under those two umbrella terms, there are four types of bullying: physical, verbal, relational, and damage to property. Physical bullying encompasses hitting, biting, kicking, or punching. Verbal bullying occurs when the bully chooses to use words to hurt and harass their targets. Relational bullying involves efforts to harm the reputation or relationships of the targeted targets. Lastly, damaging one’s property is its own form of bullying because it not only involves a target’s personhood, but their property as well.

Bullying can happen in any number of places, contexts, and locations. It is not isolated to the stereotypical shove in a locker or thrown in the trashcan after school. The more digitized society becomes, the more complex and viral the bullying. Electronic bullying, or cyberbullying, involves the oppression and assertion of power over an individual through social media and other digital outlets. Cyberbullying focuses on context or location versus an actual type of bullying because it happens over the internet. Although this form of bullying occurs through the internet, its consequences are just as detrimental to its targets. Depression, suicide, and anxiety are just a few ways that cyberbullying can affect its targets. School, the workplace, the mall, online, and the bar are all places where bullying can be perpetrated. In the case of Ashawnty Davis, the viral sharing of the altercation she experienced at school proved too much for her to overcome.

When thinking about bullying and its perpetrators, it is important to note that it is fluid in its nature and involvement. Studies show that frequent targets and frequent perpetrators assume different roles in bullying across school years as well as young adulthood. Thus, individuals can observe bullying, experience bullying, and perpetrate bullying across different situations over time. Across contexts, for instance, a student may be targeted by classmates at school but bully his or her siblings at home.

Jack, who starts as August’s friend, later finds himself in the position of a bully. He badmouths August in order to gain notoriety with his classmates. Eventually, his role shifts from being a bully and a bystander, to becoming an “upstander.” An upstander is a person who acts for positive change. Jack does this by sticking up for August when others attempt to bully him. However, by standing up for August, he finds himself now being bullied as well, thus falling into the targets role.

Research shows that being involved as both a perpetrator and targets seems to compound the impact of bullying. Bully-targets find themselves at greater risk for anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, suicide, substance abuse, and a host of other psychoanalytic disruptions. The misconception that bullies bully because they themselves have been targets is an overgeneralization to the psychoanalytic aspects at play when an individual sets out to bully someone else. We cannot simply equate their actions as retaliation.

What makes an individual more susceptible to becoming a bully? A variety of factors including the association with callous-unemotional traits like psychopathic tendencies, endorsement of masculine traits, conduct problems, and antisocial traits may contribute to exhibiting bullying behavior. In children, being the target of a bully can manifest in depression, anxiety, truancy and poor performance, loneliness and withdrawal. Bullies targets those who tend to less well liked, less accepted, and more rejected by peers. The relationship between perpetrator and targets is a power struggle in allowance for the superior party to oppress and marginalize their targets. The consequences of bullying and targetization is complex in its nature. Studies show that bullies are also at risk for many of the same adverse side effects as their targets. Bullying perpetration often leads to anxiety and depression, social withdrawal, delinquent behavior, and adult diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.

We, as a society, must assist in implementing intervention and prevention tactics to combat bullying behavior. Education and awareness are essential. Begin by recognizing the many forms that bullying takes – beyond simple name calling in a second grade classroom. Bullying transcends the classroom into adulthood. At the end of Wonder, the revelation that Auggie’s bully experiences bullying brings the story full circle. Summer, along with Jack, help to balance out this narrative by offering their friendship and support to August when no one else will. Once we recognize the many facets of bullying, we can begin to have those tough conversations about choosing kindness.

 

 

UNITY: A BEAUTIFUL GUMBO

by GABRIEL WRIGHT

a photo of a jacket that reads "we're all in this together"
togetherness. Source: Jonny Hughes, Creative Commons

** I read and utilized Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. book, Why We Can’t Wait, as the basis of this blog. The page numbers (xx) refer to the specific edition in the hyperlink.

One of my grandfathers was an old Cajun from south Louisiana who cooked gumbo when I was a kid.  His gumbo was always different because it was always full of whatever meat he had available at the time. Once, it consisted of duck with sausage and crab, while another time, it contained shrimp, chicken, and sausage. No matter what the ingredients, the gumbo was always good.

Growing up my parents were pastors and missionaries. We moved…a lot! I learned at a young age that to have friends I would have to accept people with all their differences. I attended eight different schools, in two states and three countries from kindergarten through graduation.  I was the outsider often.  Rejection became my norm. In 7th grade, we lived in Auburn, Alabama. I was not cool enough to sit with the white kids at the lunch table so I became the palest face in at the end of the other table. In high school, my friends and I called ourselves, “The Losers”,  a ragtag bunch of racially diverse rejected kids that included guys from the Philippines and Nepal.

Accepting differences is an essential step to developing unity. Every person, regardless of skin color or background, can wage war against injustice without having a national stage. The fight to right injustice is overwhelming; the enormity of the task can produce fear that paralyzes, causing many to do nothing. Therefore, I prefer to think that there are small battles to be won every day which come through the removal of fear and the creation of change. Unity exists on the other side of the willingness to change. Here are some strategies and keys to remember that can help us bring about change to achieve unity.

First, discrimination, including racism has a spiritual element. I used to think that racism was a preference or color issue. Now I realize racism is a heart condition. If I were to offer any solution to our current state of unrest and violence, it would begin with prayer. I realize it does not sound like a solution because there is no visible action; however, not everything is visible. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, says that we do not fight against flesh and blood enemies, but against spiritual unseen forces. Dr. King understood this principle well.

The nonviolent direct action of the Birmingham Civil Rights movement was brilliant. King understood that combating people like Bull Connor with physical violence would result in colossal failure. To be a part of the movement, each participant had to commit–not only to the cause of freedom and the values of non-violent direct action–but to prayer (68). People say, “we need to pray for our nation” to no longer remain divided by racism. Often, prayer for the nation looks like an outward one, directed at the heart of someone else, rather than an inward one, directed at your own heart. King David, prayed in Psalm 139, “Search me…know me…test me, and see if there is anything in me that offends you…”  The first step in overcoming division in the nation is identifying division in the heart. Ask God to reveal if there is division in your heart. The Bible calls for repentance. It sounds like a fancy church term but it simply means to turn away from what is wrong and move toward what is right.

Second, stereotypes distort and divide. Stereotypes are widely held but fixed and oversimplified ideas or perceptions of people. Dr. King asserted that the March on Washington dealt a heavy blow to the perpetuated stereotype about blacks. “The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comment, which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants.  If the press and expected something akin to a minstrel show, or a brawl, or a comic display of odd clothes and bad manners, they were disappointed” (153). The decision to shatter stereotypes is not about being or becoming a false version of yourself; it is more a decision to recognize that we are not bound to act like the stereotypes placed upon us.  As a pastor, one of the stereotypes I battle against is that all I want is your money. My plan was to be generous toward our people and to never ask for money from our visitors so when I planted my church, I decided that I would not give anyone a reason to believe that stereotype. Stereotyping is the byproduct of a spirit of division. Abraham Lincoln famously quoted Jesus Christ in saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. The best way to bring down a nation, organization, or family is through division.

a picture of Dr. King at the March on Washington 1963
Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site, Creative Commons.

I can see that spirit operating against Dr. King and the movement in 1963. The bombings began after the movement achieved great victories and won many converts to the side of justice. “Whoever planted the bombs had wanted the Negroes to riot. They wanted the pact upset” (128). The stereotype of blacks had been unsubstantiated rhetoric, used to undervalue and suppress. It was with this in mind–the spirit of division–that pushed men to plant bombs, knowing it would give rise to violence and division, not only between black and white, but within the African American community itself. Thankfully, Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth had taught the African American community about the spiritual as well as the physical. “I shall never forget the phone call my brother placed to me in Atlanta that violent Saturday night.  His home had just been destroyed.  Several people had been injured at the motel.  I listened as he described the erupting tumult and catastrophe in the streets of the city. Then, in the background as he talked, I heard a swelling burst of beautiful song.  Feet planted in the rubble of debris, threatened by criminal violence and hatred, followers of the movement were singing ‘We Shall Overcome’” (128). The movement realized that they were not fighting flesh and blood, which would be a losing battle; but in the spiritual, with prayer and song.

Never let a stereotype define you. Look for opportunities to deal stereotypes a “heavy blow”.

Third, understand that meekness means strength under control. Many people were against Dr. King’s stance on non-violent direct action. For them, action without retaliation was weakness, not strength, specifically when Connor turned water hoses on protesters. Jesus once said, “The meek will inherit the earth”. When we are meek, it doesn’t mean that we are lowering ourselves, but we are controlling ourselves and taking the ammunition away from our enemies.

Next, we cannot expect to overcome injustice and racism without setting up the next generation. I’ll never forget my friend Cedric. He lived in a very violent, crime ridden government housing project. I lost track of him (this was before Facebook and cell phones) because he moved away. His mother decided that she wanted better for her son; therefore, she worked hard, saved money and looked to provide her son a better situation. Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois developed an ideology called the “talented tenth”, in which some African Americans to rise, pulling the mass up with them. King disagreed with this philosophy in the 1960’s because, at the time, African Americans had no real way of creating a better life as individuals, let alone as a group (28). Today that is not necessarily the case.

a picture of a puzzle piece fitting into another one
Putting The Puzzle Together. Source: www.SeniorLiving.Org, Creative Commons.

I understand that things can always be better, but in today’s world, there is a path for success. There have been many African Americans that have navigated the ladders of success in politics, sports, entertainment, medicine and business. You may say, “it is easy for a white person to rise up”, and while that is true, it does not mean that a person of color cannot.  We will only accomplish what we think we can accomplish. I love to hear about millionaire athletes, who, through hard work and good choices make it out of bad situations, turned their lives around, and give back to their community.  There is a need for more people to show the way; to educate and mentor the next generation in the ways of life, including finances and relationships. Over my years of ministry, I have found that people need more than a handout. The old saying, “give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime” is true.  As the “talented tenth” begin to use their influence to not just help, I feel we can and will see a shift in the balance of justice and equity. When people understand that their platform and influence is not for their glory, but to serve others, then we will be on the path toward victory.

Finally, as a friend and I were talking one day, he told me of a church that wants to become more multiracial but just can’t seem to “crack the code”. Curious, I asked him, “Why do African Americans attend our church?” We don’t sing gospel. I don’t preach like T.D. Jakes or Tony Evans, and we don’t do anything to appeal to any one race over another. I believe his responses are simple and effective ways to begin the healing process between the races and start moving toward justice in our nation:

  1. You don’t try to appease.  People know when you are being fake.  When we try to be something we are not, we usually come across as offensive.
  2. You have African American friends.  We need to make friends with people of different races, not to put a notch on our belt, but to really expand our circle of relationships.
  3. You love people.  When you set your heart to love and accept people, it become contagious.
  4. You promote African American people.  At our church, we don’t have token African American leaders.  We have leaders, and some of them happen to be African American.

I pastor a wonderful little church in Birmingham, Alabama. Our church is a beautiful “gumbo” of colors, classes, and countries. In this current climate of racial tension, it is my heart to have place where people can catch a glimpse of heaven…a glimpse of Dr. King’s dream for America; a place where black and white don’t just attend together, but do life together. We aren’t perfect but we fight for unity, peace and most importantly, love. I believe our nation should be like that gumbo…different flavors and backgrounds coming together to create something wonderful.

 

Gabriel Wright, along with his wife Perry, started and pastor Gateway Family Church in Birmingham, AL. They have three children.

MLK’s Efforts to Advocate Human Rights in 1967 Echoed Fifty Years Later

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC, in 1966. From the General Negative Collection, State Archives of North Carolina.
Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC, in 1966. From the General Negative Collection, State Archives of North Carolina., Creative Commons.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spent the final summer of his life articulating a way to move the United States from civil rights to human rights, a project that found him criticized from across the political spectrum. Fifty years later, King’s anguished attempt to navigate the complex racial politics of the Summer of Love illustrates many contemporary challenges facing progressives and radicals in the 21st century.

In popular memory, Martin Luther King largely operates on the level of myth, often appearing as a hallowed character in various tales of turmoil and triumph. Indeed, historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall laments the dominant image of MLK—“frozen in 1963”—dreaming endlessly of an America where individuals are judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Yet in my experience with college students in Chicago and Birmingham, race and ideology continue to influence how Americans interpret King. While racists continue to attack him and his legacy, it is now difficult to find critics of the man in polite circles. Indeed, like other folk heroes and founding fathers, there appears to be a King for everybody. Moderates celebrate his patriotism, piety, and non-violence. Progressives revel in their inside knowledge that the real King was much more militant than grade school portraits suggest. Radicals share and collect his lesser-known writings and speeches. Even conservatives appropriate the preacher’s dream to support color-blind policies anathema to his life’s work. As is their habit, academics live in the nuance and contradictions, depicting a multi-dimensional King that changed over time and remains difficult to capture.

The kaleidoscopic nature of King’s memory owes a great deal to the legacy of his life and times. In the decade-and-a-half of his public existence, MLK’s position often changed with the perspective of the observer. King’s worldview evolved as well. By 1967, King was in the early stages of a public shift to the radical Left, an incomplete journey whose end is impossible to know. At the time, however, King was beset from all sides with judgment, criticism, and ridicule. Conservatives hated him for challenging the racial status quo and for his alleged link to communism. Liberals cautioned him to moderate his demands and contain voices of extremism. Radicals doubted his sincerity and credentials. His own reflections depict a man grappling with uncertainty and doubt.

In the shifting political climate of the mid-1960s, King responded to new developments by reshuffling the movement’s priorities. Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the demands of battling Jim Crow moved to the background. In the face of continued racial inequality, King and others renewed their focus on an older set of priorities, principally in the field of economics. While African Americans had long demanded fair access to jobs, housing, education, and housing, Cold War anti-communism silenced an older generation of radicals whose voices sustained the movement prior to World War Two. In post-war America, the relatively safer fight for desegregation dominated the civil rights establishment. By 1967, however, King joined a growing chorus demanding fundamental changes to American society. Never silenced completely, traditions of anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism rose to the fore once again. In the final year of his life, King made explicit many radical values previously left implicit. In his effort to articulate the more radical elements of his dream, King drew much criticism.

In an attempt to challenge the static portrayal of King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, however, some commentators have exaggerated the degree of change between the younger and older MLK. While King’s public career reveals a noted radical turn after 1965, much of his later philosophy appeared earlier as well. As historian Clayborn Carson writes, “King’s basic beliefs remained remarkably consistent during his adulthood.” Indeed, King’s evolution was less philosophical than it was dispositional, even circumstantial. King always cultivated a radical perspective, but the passage of time—his internal maturation and a changing external opportunity structure—found him more comfortable articulating radical ideas. Analyzing King’s seminary training and roots in the Black church, for example, historian Douglas Sturm contends that King’s late radicalization was more of a “refinement” than a “transformation of his basic orientation.” While associates claim King only began describing himself privately as a democratic socialist in early 1968, King had long practiced a form of collective humanism, even while avoiding Marxist language in his speeches and publications.

An African American man, the victim of assault during Detroit's race riot tries to escape from a mob before further violence ensues.
An African American man, the victim of assault during Detroit’s race riot tries to escape from a mob before further violence ensues. Source: Tullio Saba, Creative Commons

In the late summer of 1967, however, the momentum of outside events forced King to articulate a radical vision of civil rights—one grounded in a larger framework of human rights—that would anger liberal critics in Washington, alienate moderates within the movement, and arouse skeptical militants. Two examples from July and August serve to demonstrate King’s evolving public position and the volatile context within which he operated. July witnessed two of the worst civil disorders of American history, as first Newark and then Detroit exploded in several days of rebellion, riot, and uncoordinated violence. Dozens of people—mostly Black men shot by the police—died as authorities retook the streets. Distraught and physically fatigued, King placed his name on an official response endorsed by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the National Urban League, two giants of civil rights known for their moderation and restraint.

Uncomfortable characterizing civil disorder as the act of lawless rioters, King issued his own public statement in the form of a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson. Blaming public officials—especially Congress—for failing to invest in the inner city, King insisted, “Only drastic changes in the life of the poor will provide the kind of order and stability [we] desire.” Determined to propose a solution, King implored Johnson, “Let us do one simple, direct thing—let us end unemployment totally and immediately. I propose specifically the creation of a national agency that shall provide a job to every person who needs work” (p. 570). Cautious in his sympathy for participants of urban rebellion, King avoided direct criticism of the president and tempered his support for economic redistribution.

Publicly optimistic, King privately worried that his words might encourage further disorder. In a phone conversation transcribed by the FBI, radical associates of King reassured him that “in taking this position, you are not isolating yourself with a few rioters; you are joining some very distinguished opinion-makers and a very large mass of people who have seen through to the real issue here.” While Wilkins, Young, and other moderates distanced themselves from “rioters” for tearing up their neighborhoods, King joined an influential group of observers—particularly those on the radical Left—who recognized the social and economic roots of unrest. According to the FBI transcript, “MLK described the Detroit riot as ‘an explosion of anger against an invisibility’ resulting from ‘a dull monotony of nothingness’ from which people escape occasionally to go to work but to which they must return.” (1) King would expand on this theme of anomie affecting inner city residents—and the nation as a whole—in a more militant speech a few weeks later.

a picture of the National Guard and the police in Detroit, 1967 following the riots
National Guard and police, Detroit Riots July 1967, Image: Howard Bingham/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty, online: Cris Wild: Remembering the Detroit Riots of 1967. Source: continentcontinent.cc, Creative Commons.

On August 31, 1967, King delivered a keynote address titled, “The Three Evils of Society,” before the National Conference on New Politics (NCNP) in Chicago. Celebrated among King aficionados and radicals today, the speech found King at an emotional low as he faced a divided and occasionally hostile NCNP crowd. Alluding to the audience’s “disillusionment” and sense of “betrayal” with American liberalism, King claimed to share their “blasted” hopes and “shattered” dreams. In the face of an immoral war in Asia and widespread poverty at home, King sympathized with a group of “angry young men of our movement” who booed him the previous summer. King admitted, “I had preached to them about my dream,” only for them to watch it “turn into a frustrating nightmare.” At the heart of their frustration, King contended, was the great American “hypocrisy” whereby policymakers advocate “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.”

King devoted the bulk of his speech to “a triple-prong sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning”—the “sickness of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism.” King argued that a contemporary “white backlash” was not triggered by the recent “cry of Black Power “or the “unfortunate wave of riots.” Rather, racism constituted a core component of “Western Civilization,” a phenomenon “rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the Black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.” Far from aberrant, he insisted, racism was foundational to the American experiment.

Next, King turned to a second societal evil, the “extreme materialism” of the American economic system. “Capitalism,” King declared, “was built on the exploitation and suffering of Black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor—both Black and white, both here and abroad.” Proposing a federal guarantee of full employment, King called for investment in “education” and “health,” a “radical redistribution of political and economic power,” and a program to “aid in the transfer of power and wealth into the hands of residents of the ghetto.”

Finally, King turned to the “disease of militarism.” As American cities descended into “inexorable decay,” King denounced the “tragic adventure in Vietnam” as a drain on “our wealth and energy.” Not only was the war immoral, King argued, it also robbed vital resources from efforts to alleviate poverty at home. In sum, King diagnosed as “morally bankrupt” a society in which “profit motives and property values are considered more important than people.” Only a “radical revolution of values” could save the United States from impending “spiritual death.” Along with a handful of other notable documents, the July telegram to Johnson and the August NCNP speech reflect King’s efforts to steer the civil rights coalition toward a radical human rights agenda with the potential to bring economic justice and substantive freedom to millions of Americans.

Fifty years after 1967, many human rights advocates in the United States today echo King’s attacks on racism, materialism, and militarism. His efforts to move the freedom movement from civil rights to human rights involved demanding the United States government provide all residents adequate employment, housing, education, and healthcare. Including vocal criticism of war and the criminal justice system, King’s 1967 agenda speaks powerfully to 21st-century problems. Indeed, the 2016 platform of the Movement for Black Lives suggests the direct influence of King and his contemporaries. The radical voice of both MLK and #BLM, of course, inspired strong opposition. In King’s day, Cold War anti-communists labeled his prescription subversive and un-American. While the Cold War eventually ended, the rise of mass incarceration and the bi-partisan triumph of neo-liberalism after 1970 continues to stunt racial progress beyond the minimum of condemning Jim Crow statutes. In 2017, activists who challenge fundamental premises of American institutions or demand equitable employment, housing, education, and healthcare encounter the same oppressive forces attacking MLK half-a-century earlier.

 

Andy Baer is an Assistant Professor of History at UAB. He teaches U.S. History and African American History with a focus on social movements and criminal justice. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled Beyond the Usual Beating: The Jon Burge Police Torture Scandal and Social Movements for Police Accountability in Chicago, 1972-2015.

Footnote: 1) “FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and SCLC via surveillance of home telephone of King advisor Stanley Levinson, July 21, 1967-July 26, 1967,” accessed through the ProQuest History Vault.

The Complex Practicality of Love

a picture of tiles which spell out love and hate
love/hate cubed still. Source: soft graphix, Creative Commons.

Excerpts from profound leaders, such as Gandhi, Mandela, and King, become useful during times of civil unrest. Their words seemingly echo the heart, inspiring both comfort and action for a moment. However, the full weight of their words remains unheeded and leave the daily lives of some who ferry them out as temporary mantras. One reason is lack of context. The words themselves are out of context because the remainder of the speech or sermon discarded, and the sacrifice of the lived life narrowed to a soundbite or repost. We will look at the legacy and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over the next few blog posts. The goal is to see if the words he spoke and life he lived find application in society today. This small project is in conjunction with the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington where Dr. King famously declared, “I Have a Dream.” Writers have looked across the depth of King’s work, found pieces with modern day applications, and have written powerful analyses.

Dr. King, on 17 November 1957, preached a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, entitled, “Loving Your Enemies”. This sermon is the basis of this blog.

The sermon, based on Matthew 5 in the scripture, demands believers do four things when it comes to their enemies: love them, bless them, do good to them, and pray for them. King uses this sermon to cultivate a paradigm shift about the nature of love, while also breaking down its complexity into practical applications. He argues what seems like impractical idealism is practically realistic because of love. There is a recognition that loving an enemy—those who seek to defeat you–is difficult. Yet, as a mandate of Jesus, it is the individual’s Christian and moral responsibility to understand and live out this command. The first step in initiating and implementing love is self-analysis.

America has long prided itself on being a Christian nation and police officer of the world, often to the disparagement of allies and enemies alike. King asserts the element of bravado may arouse resentment and hostility by other nations when they view from afar the injustices taking place by the American government against her citizens. “There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual. This is true in our international struggle… in spite of all the weaknesses and evils inherent in communism, we must at the same time see the weaknesses and evils with democracy” (44). He confesses democracy itself is the greatest conception of man, although its weakness lies in the trampling of “individuals and races with the iron feet of oppression” through mechanisms such as colonialism and imperialism. He considered the success of other ideologies, like communism (at the time), lay in the failure of democracy to hold to its principles and ideals (41-5). For America, as a nation of individuals, to love their enemies, an internal analysis of how we treat each other is required.

Many believe the present conversation about racism is a perpetuated by the media. The belief ‘if I don’t see racism in my community, then it must not actually exist’ creates a deniability that hinders the plausibility of justice and liberty for all. A united self-analysis could assist in the identification and acceptance of the knowledge that racial tension has been a factor in the American narrative since the pilgrims arrived on the shore. This acknowledgment will confirm the notion that the election and presidency of Barack Obama did not remove the established tension. The political platform of speaking to the “left-behind” sparked a populist movement that further exasperated the divide.

In a November interview with 60 Minutes, when informed of the horrific behaviors taking place around the country under the banner of “Trump’s America”, he denied liability and culpability, simply stating, “stop it.” He has recently come under fire for his duplicity on the attacks in Charlottesville. Some shouted the current president emboldened white nationalist ideology and the hate-filled attacks that took place during the campaigning process and have continued over the past seven months; others remain stoic in their support of him. However, last week as a measure of notice and concern for the rise of vitriol and violence, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released its “Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedures” report. The report calls upon, urges, and recommends the US, a a State Party on the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to

“fully respect its international obligations…to not only unequivocally and unconditionally reject and condemn racist hate speech and racist crimes but to actively contribute to the promotion of understanding, tolerance, and diversity between ethnic groups; ensure that all human rights violations which took place in Charlottesville…are thoroughly investigated; the government… identify and take concrete measures to address the root causes of the proliferation of such racist manifestations; ensure the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are not exercised with the aim of destroying or denying the rights and freedoms of others.

 

love
.love. Source: Jennifer Donley, Creative Commons

Second, look for the good as a countermeasure to each hate-filled thought. The decision to identify the good forces each of us to confront the “many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality… there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives” (45). King labels it ‘the isness versus the oughtness’: the recalcitrant South of our soul in revolt of the North of our soul. Synthesizing teachings from Ovid, Goethe, and the Apostle Paul, he concedes the division within us is the knowledge of good but the choice to do bad; a cry, that at the core, each of us has had at one point of another in life (45-6). In other words, choose radical empathy. Hate and discrimination extend beyond race; let us look at Muslims and Islamophobia as an example.

King declares hate removes the ability to see the “image of God” whereas love, challenges what the eyes see because “no matter what he does, you see the image of God there. There is an element of good that can never slough off” (46). A tenet of the US Declaration of Independence is states the Creator has endowed with inalienable rights to all humanity; this belief is also foundational to the Christian faith. Since the aftermath of 9/11, American Muslims are at the center of significant discrimination and hate. Harassed for their hijab and religious beliefs, the blanket assumption that each Muslim is a terrorist and actively threatening the wellbeing of Americans with sharia law and Islamic fundamentalism is contrary to the founding principles of this nation, and the principles of Islam itself. Even President Obama found himself on the receiving end of a birther conspiracy and dissention labeling him a secret Muslim. When considering this entrenched and unjustified hate, is it feasible to believe that reposting “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” automatically removes the racial, religious, and psychological injustices of innocent Muslims over the last 16 years? Does it absolve the character assassination of Obama? Does it remove the stigma unfairly applied to millions of Hispanics, specifically Mexicans, labelled rapist, drug dealer, or job stealer? Or any marginalized population in America?

Third, choose not to defeat your enemy, even if the perfect opportunity presents itself (47). The Greek language has several words for love, including eros, philia, and agape. Agape love looks for creative ways to win the one who hates over to love’s side by bridging the distance in the same way Christ did for the world in John 3:16. True love contains the refusal to defeat individuals; the goal of love is to defeat the system, which generated and perpetuated the distance that results in hate. Agape love seeks conversion, not defeat. King suggest when we act on agape love, we love “not because people are likable but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him…” (48-49). Love is a stronger feeling than like. Like is swayed by perception and attitudes; love, on the other hand, is consistent in nature due to its rooting in the soul. At the core of the soul, love allows for acceptance of the person while disagreeing with the behavior. Let us take the removal of Confederate monuments as an example.

love never ends from 1 Cor 13
love never ends. Source: Carmela Nava, Creative Commons

The removal of confederate symbols, for many, is an affront to their white heritage and an assault on the historical narrative of America. What many have failed to discern is that the erection and permanent reminder of the historical narrative of confederate whites in America is, and has always been, an affront to the heritage of Americans of African descent. Racial unity in the United States of America requires the truth that hate has existed at the core of this country, permeating through every institution. Therefore, the removal of and proposed relocation of the reminders is not to destroy white individuals, but rather initiate the destruction of the system upon which inequity, hate, racism, and discrimination originated. If we apply King’s three ideals for practical application of creative action through agape love to the monuments, to interact with marginalized communities, and to race relations, can they contribute to a narrative and paradigm shift?

  1. Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe (49). “Civilizations fail… if someone doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world” (51). Someone must inject the strong element of love within the very structure of the universe (51).
  2. Hate is irrational. It destroys the personality of the hater, blinding them to the truth and distorting the vision of what is just (52). Hate destroys the hater and the hated.
  3. Love alone has a redemptive power (53). Hate removes the ability to bring about transformation.

The conversation around race produces responses that vary from “I’m not racist because I have black friends and coworkers” to “we are living in a post-racial America because we elected a black president”. However, manifestation of hate and discrimination is not merely about black and white. It is the denial of love’s full expression and love’s creative, redemptive, and transformative power over the human heart, mind, and embedded systems of oppression. King, in the conclusion of his sermon, explains three ways that the oppressed respond to the oppressor: violence, resignation, and massive nonviolent resistance based on the principle of love (56-60).

Love is the way Jesus did it.

Love is the way for Dr. King.

Is love the way for you? Love, like hate, is evident in alignment and actions.

 

 

 

Changing Climates, Divided Landscapes and Why We Can’t Wait

by PAULETTE PATTERSON DILWORTH, Ph.D.

a photo of a line from the Letter from a Birmingham Jail which reads "this wait has almost always meant never"
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from the National Civil Rights museum in Memphis, TN. Source: J.G.Park, Creative Commons

As I reflect on my experiences coming of age in the segregated south, I am reminded of my family and others in my community who dared to ‘live out loud’ during an era when Jim Crow was a defining feature that framed social and political interactions between Black and White people. For me, the time span is not a distant memory that happened long ago. It is a historical period that inspired the need for social change. A “watershed moment” is a point in time that provides significant space for clarity, and is often related to historical change. Since August 11th, I have engaged with colleagues and friends in thoughtful conversations about our own experiences after witnessing Charlottesville and placing the events in historical perspective. I was born in Selma, Alabama and raised in the very close knit “Summerfield” community. I came of age in Selma at the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. I was most privileged to have a front row seat to many of the events, as they unfolded and eventually culminated in “Bloody Sunday” and the historic Selma to Montgomery March. Like many of the children, teenagers, and young adults who lived in my community at that time, I attended segregated public schools. As students, we were eager to get involved in the mass meetings and marches because we could sense the winds of change blowing in Selma. The opportunity to exercise the right to vote was a lifelong dream held by many adults in my family and the community. During the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was the most exciting expression of political activism in which my generation could engage. As historian Joyce Ladner said when she coined the term, the ‘Emmett Till generation,’ “there was no more exciting time to have been born than at the time, and the place, and to the parents that movement, a young movement of people were born to.” Today, the nonviolent activism and protest of the 1960s are a stark contrast to the protests that occurred in Charlottesville that is rooted in a movement predicated on hatred, racism, and white supremacy. Today, Charlottesville awakens a new clarion call that insists we revisit the propositions offered by Dr. King in 1964 when he responded to pressing social justice concerns in Why We Can’t Wait.

On August 11, 2017, white supremacists showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia for a “Unite the Right” call to action or a coming-out party for the white nationalist movement. The march was organized to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville. At some point, the gathering of protestors and counter-protestors turned violent, and in the aftermath, three people died. Following one of the most contested elections in recent memory, it is safe to say that many of us are quite alarmed by the abundance of racial bias and hate on display in Charlottesville and elsewhere in the United States seen on our college campuses and in our communities across the country. Many of the hard-won gains for social justice, equity, and inclusion are under threat. Observers of the events that unfolded in Charlottesville continue to express shock and dismay to have witnessed such public display of hate and violence in a 21st century United States. The changing social climates and divided political landscapes reveal the character of a nation that continues to grapple with profound division and conflicts between groups that exist in our history and our present. Scholars who study social change and social movements agree that such events usually evolve from strained “relationships between those who have power and those who do not.” To some extent, these movements arise when groups in society feel discontented about some element or perceived injustice in their lives. What happened in Charlottesville is a 21st-century reminder that old wounds can reopen to allow the pervasive nature of racism and injustice to ooze to the surface.

a photo from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville
Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally. Source: Anthony Crider, Creative Commons.

In the summer of 1963, after the conclusion of the Birmingham campaign for civil rights and the March on Washington for jobs and freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. further developed the ideas introduced in his iconic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in a book entitled Why We Can’t Wait. Dr. King tells the story of African American activism in the spring and summer of 1963. During this time, Birmingham, Alabama, was perhaps the most racially segregated city in the United States, but the campaign launched by Dr. King, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and others demonstrated to the world the power of nonviolent direct action. The time span is not a distant memory that happened long ago. This year marks the 54th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

It is a curious parallel that in 1964, Dr. King published Why We Can’t Wait as a call to action and an excellent political commentary on the fight for racial justice and equality in Birmingham and throughout the American South. Why We Can’t Wait begins with Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that he wrote while being held there. Dr. King wrote the letter in response to a public statement of caution offered by eight white religious leaders in the Birmingham community. Several quotes from Dr. King’s letter are now popular iconic sound bites that are used to frame social justice messages of hope and aspiration. For example, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” is a reminder of the relevance of Why We Can’t Wait. Although African Americans continue to bear the burdens of racism, King makes it clear that all Americans regardless of their race are affected and suffer when injustice is allowed to prevail.

The central proposition of the book is concerned with nonviolent resistance as a protest strategy that was used successfully to push the civil rights movement into the hearts and spirits of white allies. Dr. King was unapologetic in his demands for racial and economic justice, and he understood well the political implications of his role in the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. He explains what he calls the “Negro Revolution” and how it spawned quietly before bursting onto the national scene in 1963, and was “destined to grow in strength and numbers because three hundred years of mistreatment cannot be expected to find a voice in a whisper.” Why We Can’t Wait is useful for activists, educators, discussions, teachers, and researchers that grapple with the issues of social justice and injustice. It is also a useful text that encourages the reader to think intensely about what it means to pursue nonviolence in words and action. Although the book was published in 1964, it is quite easy to identify relevant narratives that align with today’s social justice movements. Further, Why We Can’t Wait introduces the reader to ideas that offer a compelling rationale for thinking through how to effect utilitarian social change. For example, in the section titled “Why 1963?” Dr. King invites the reader to explore the explanation he offered as to why 1963 was the year the southern freedom struggle gained momentum and eventually emerged on the national stage. In his analysis, Dr. King offered several plausible examples as to why 1963 was a “tipping point” that elevated the movement. Primarily, he outlined seven areas of influence:

  • the southern resistance to school integration after Brown vs. Board of Education,
    • a crisis of confidence in government after the failure of President Kennedy’s administration to deliver on the civil rights bill,
    • the southern apathy and lack of support for African American voting rights,
    • the growing anti-colonization movement in Africa and the psychological implications on racially oppressed African Americans,
    • the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation that clarified for African Americans just how far they still had to travel,
    • the ongoing and persistent poverty in the African American community,
    • and the rise of nonviolent direct action both in the United States and abroad as a viable means for social change.
a picture of the Selma March 2015
Edmund Pettus Bridge, 2015. Photo by Paulette Patterson Dilworth, Ph.D.

In later sections of Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King explains how direct action creates tension and exposes crisis in a community, thus, forcing the community to confront and negotiate the issue. As a political protest strategy, nonviolent direct action aims to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that community has to engage and respond. As noted in his “Letter from A Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King and his supporters had received much criticism for their efforts, with some critics claiming that the civil rights activists expected too much, too soon. In contrast, more militant activists argued that they asked for too little. At the same time, the civil rights legislation stalled in Congress. Although Why We Can’t Wait, should be viewed in historical context, Dr. King’s use of the past and ethical arguments to justify the Civil Rights Movement is timeless. Moreover, readers will gain richer insights into Dr. King’s development of the concept of nonviolent resistance and its necessity in combatting social injustice.

In the conclusion of Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King ends the text by explaining that African Americans cannot afford to continue the slow movement toward freedom and justice. He states that they must demand and insist on it. Further, Dr. King advances the idea that poor whites and organized labor should consider joining the civil rights movement. He also calls for unity among all oppressed people in America, calling for a stronger relationship with Native Americans and clarifying that he believes the summer of 1963 made most white Americans receptive to his ideas. Dr. King expressed hope that if the civil rights movement was successful, it had the potential to expand non-violence worldwide and end the nuclear arms race. In the decades following Dr. King’s untimely death, his words have been used by future leaders across the globe, including President Barack Obama, to make the case that we can’t wait to take action. Before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King authored six books focusing on his nonviolent philosophy and call to political action for social justice. Why We Can’t Wait remains one of the most relevant political commentaries of the 21st century to elevate African-American voices in U.S. history.

As previously mentioned, this year, August 28th marks the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington.  The March ended the Birmingham summer of 1963 that was filled with protests and organizations that lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now more than ever, we need to pause and gather as a community to connect, share histories and strategies, and prepare for the difficult social, political and economic challenges that lay ahead. The “fierce urgency of now” is upon us like a rising tide and Why We Can’t Wait is as relevant today as it was in 1964. After a careful reading  of Dr. King’s work, a new and more thoughtful generation of human rights and social justice advocates will likely come away with a new and more critical perspective on a period in U.S. history that has often been reduced to iconic trivia. The summer of 1963 is not a sad portion of our history; it is very hopeful. However, the fact that Charlottesville happened in the summer of 2017 is a sad commentary on where we are at this particular time in U.S. history. Yes, it would be an extraordinary thing if all people of goodwill realized they do not have to wait to be invited to get involved and work for positive social change. The changing political climates and divided social landscapes insist that we work together to address the crisis of our democratic enterprise. That perspective has been helpful to me. I find a lot of comfort in that, as well as a lot of challenges and opportunities to make a difference.

 

Paulette Patterson Dilworth, Ph.D. is Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Besides a strong affinity for art and music, Dr. Dilworth has accumulated more than 30 years of experience in higher education, diversity education consulting and training, recruitment, retention, research, teaching and outreach. Dr. Dilworth has devoted her professional career and much of her personal life to social justice and advocacy exploring issues of access, civic engagement, equity and community building.

The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: A Modern Meditation on King’s Conviction

Choices. Source: Derek Bruff, Creative Commons

*** In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we will repost the blogs from August in which writers looked at his legacy and words to see if the words he spoke and life he lived find application in society today. 

Spiritual power is real.  When confronted with the imminent threat of violence during his (and many others’) campaign for equal civil rights for black Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unequivocally stated, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul-force.  Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.” (Ansbro, 1982).  How does an indomitable ethic of nonviolence like King’s develop?  How did his tactics inspire his followers in the pursuit of equal rights?  In addition, how does nonviolence fit in a modern strategy for social change?  This post explores these questions.

The Existentialism of King: An Agent’s Choice to Fight for Freedom

King’s personal existential philosophy, interpretation of agape, and radical devotion to the teachings of Christ all paint a clear picture of a personal belief system impelled to fight for freedom and equality.  Underlying these three central tenets to King’s moral code, the teachings of existentialist thought is particularly fascinating and underappreciated to laypersons with a vested interest in the teachings of King.  While research for King’s devotion to the Christian church is extensive, his critique and praise of existentialist philosophers as far back as his doctoral dissertation at Boston University’s School of Theology has not received nearly as much attention.  When considering his theory of nonviolence, the moral and philosophical building blocks upon which he constructed his tactics and theory of civil resistance find their intellectual seeds in the writings of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and other existential philosophers.  This intellectual genealogy is especially apparent in his definition of freedom, his emphasis on an agent’s choice to actively pursue freedom, and the inter- and intrapersonal benefits to be gained from the pursuit of freedom in an agent’s lifetime.  Instead of ‘person’, ‘individual’, etc., the term ‘agent’ is used in this section to denote the verbiage used in existential philosophy, though King often used the term ‘man’, ‘mankind’, and the like.  ‘Agent’ specifically relates to the role of freewill / agency, a cornerstone of existentialist philosophy.

King understood the intrinsic link between individualism (the concept of self-differentiation from a social group, order, and / or hierarchy) and the pursuit of freedom.  This a fundamental part of King’s theory of nonviolence: the mere act of speaking out and / or behaviorally resisting structures of power meant to suppress an agent’s rights and liberties is a declaration of an agent’s individuality against a collective’s power.  Although the existentialists proposed oftentimes contradictory viewpoints on the role of religion and God in this endeavor (e.g. Nietzsche and his rejection of any form of higher power, Kierkegaard’s emphasis on an agent’s commitment to God, etc.), King obviously drew philosophical inspiration from his theological studies and unwavering commitment to the Christian doctrine of faith.  Throughout the Christian Bible, true followers of Christ are described as making a deeply personal and individual choice to commit their lives (both spiritual and physical lives- this dualism is characteristic of Christian theology as well) to the teachings of Christ.  King believed (as the existentialists before him) an agent must individually choose to pursue freedom without interference from an external influence.  In this sense, freedom is not ‘given’; it is earned.  This bold separation from and then condemnation of unfair power structures (such as institutional racism) is a testament to the power of an agent’s choice- rebuking social influence (this rebuke Nietzsche proclaims is the ‘highest form of individualism’).

King reiterated the stakes of the pursuit, specifically once an agent makes the choice to pursue freedom actively, famously stating:

“I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten.  I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit- but we must stand up for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.”

This awareness of and commitment to the ultimate price for the pursuit of freedom, death, is reminiscent of Heidegger’s proposed relationship between a moral agent and death in The Courage To Be.  According to Heidegger, death arising from conflict between an agent and the world around him or her is an achievement of authentic existence.  Authenticity is another cornerstone of existential philosophy.  King, alongside Heidegger, believed death arising from the pursuit of freedom is one of the greatest forms of meaning an agent can achieve.  This orientation towards death frees an agent to pursue the cause of freedom from repression without fear of losing his or her life in the process.  The unshackling of fear (the fear of death and suffering) arising from this dedication to the cause of nonviolent resistance is, in many ways, a direct metaphor for the very shackles eschewed by King’s followers during the civil rights movement.

Non-Violence. Source: ϟ†Σ , Creative Commons.

The Futility of Violence for the World & for the Self

The quote “[h]e who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.  And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”, (in)famously uttered by Nietzsche, conveniently links King’s existential philosophy with his ardent rejection of violent resistance throughout the struggle for equal rights.  To ensure sustainable, ethical, and transformative social change, he proclaimed, his followers and the agents of other prosocial movements must understand the utter impracticality of violent resistance.  The real meat of his theory and practice of nonviolent protest, again built on his existential philosophy and Christian beliefs, lies in his interpretation of the amorality of violence and is dressed in the observation of violence as, albeit shocking and ionizing, a tactically inferior method to institutionalize long-lasting, meaningful equality in any given culture.

Before exploring King’s refutations of violent protest, an operational definition of his nonviolent civil resistance is necessary.  When King constructed his theory of nonviolent civil resistance, he first drew inspiration from the Greek form of love, agape.  This is a general goodwill towards all men (similar to Kant’s categorical imperative), and in the words of King himself: “…affirms the other unconditionally.  It is agape that suffers and forgives.  It seeks the personal fulfillment of the other.” (Ansbro, 1982).  Using this love-force as a fundamental building block, King espoused civil resistance and protest must seek to benefit society as a whole, not merely one faction or group.  He believed racism perverted the soul of a racist person just as it led to violence against a victim; in this way, the eradication of racism (and racist policies) would benefit society as a whole, not just the subjugated race.  Nonviolent protest grew from a form of love (agape), and required the user to respect the fundamental personhood of their ‘enemies’ (in the case of civil rights, the enemy is a racist people).  This absolute respect of personhood forbade the protester from willfully engaging in violent behavior.  Violence committed against a counter-protester is violence committed to all of humanity.

Taking his cue from Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” concept, King believed a revolutionary movement, such as the pursuit of ethnic / racial equality in the United States and beyond, could not base itself on the permission of its fighters to act violently.  Concerning the larger world outside his resistance, King writes violence has no place in the movement for four reasons:

  1. Violent resistance would inspire an annihilating response from the “well-armed white majority”;
  2. Violent riots have historically not warranted an increase in funding for anti-poverty efforts (which he claimed is central to the eradication of racial injustice);
  3. Like Nietzsche’s foreboding warning, protesters become the very monster they aim to undermine and destroy should they commit acts of physical violence against structural violence;
  4. Violence cannot appeal to the conscious of the majority holding power over the repressed minority.

The use of violence is inherently contradictory to the message of equal rights, as messages of equality presume a social / legal system capable of handling internal conflict without need for force or domination.  From a macro perspective, the use of violent force in the civil rights movement lead by King (and a clear differentiation from others’ movements, such as Malcolm X and Garvey) is a self-defeating paradox that would threaten to destroy the fight for equality both from within and without.  Any attempt to solicit sympathy (an emotional response) or deconstruct the unjust power structures repressing black Americans (a practical or behavior-based response) would immediately disintegrate upon the awareness of the use of violence by Kingian civil rights activists.  Again, violence is a self-defeating gambit.

On the individual level, King warned of the moral cost of violent behavior.  Violence, which King believed was an aberration of God’s intended natural design, would easily desensitize the user to other acts of violence (this is the ‘best case’ scenario) or utterly corrupt the user and impel future acts of violence (this is the ‘worst case’ scenario).  The destructive power of violence assaults the very spiritual self of the user, driving him or her further from the Creator (the Christian God), and twists his or her capacities of moral judgement.  To King, violence was not only physical but also psychological.

twitter. Source: Hamza Butt, Creative Commons

A Modern Struggle for Social Equality

Taking the lessons from King’s theory,–notably the moral and tactical arguments in favor of nonviolent social change–how can peacemakers in 2017 and beyond utilize nonviolence for prosocial ends? The answer may lie in an invention of modernity, namely the evolution of information and communication technologies (ICTs).  Prior to the universal dissemination and usage of ICTs, the theaters for nonviolent protests were limited to select spaces in the public sphere.  The public sphere, defined as a space where persons can freely engage in the share of information and critique of social issues, has expanded far beyond its scope in the 1960s.  Nonviolent protests are no longer limited to physical locales such as restaurant counters, bus stops, or streets; now, there is access to online forums.  The transfer of information through technology has empowered proponents of nonviolent prosocial movements to communicate through social platforms with audiences from thousands, to millions, and even billions.  Today, the directionality and power of a message anchored in nonviolent resistance and protest receives magnification whereas thorny issues continue to plague the relationship between ICTs, social movements, and the ICT users themselves.

Information overload likely threatens the point of impact of a particular movement.  The inundation of internet and its users with blips and soundbites, e-signing petitions, event invitations, podcasts, and the like, the original power of prosocial movements may dilute beyond the original critical mass, that is, the potency of a message to inspire behavioral change in the receiver of the message.  There is no doubt King’s nonviolent movement hit the critical mass for change; King’s role in the normalization of equal rights for black Americans is without real dispute.  However, a new threat arises and threatens to subvert the power of prosocial change.  The threat today is apathy. This apathy arises from too many texts, DM’s, and tweets for a reader to devote moral and cognitive energy towards every message he or she receives.  Extreme diffusion of a person’s identity, characteristic of a society far too ‘plugged in’ than it knows how to handle, is an insidious problem.  A user may feel morally vindicated after retweeting a ‘social justice’ message, share a Facebook post, or caption an Instagram photo, and this vindication is misplaced.  What behavioral change occurs after making a post? Do tweets inspire policy change at the highest level of government? Can a Facebook status provide justice and catharsis in the same capacity King’s Freedom March did?  Perhaps with enough users speaking in solidarity, utilizing true spiritual power for the betterment of their fellow man and woman. Without a physical commitment to mitigate injustice, such as the sit-ins, marches, and boycotts reminiscent of King’s movement, social justice messages may just be that: messages floating in the ether.

 

References: Ansbro, J. J. (1982).  Martin Luther King, Jr.: Nonviolent Strategies and Tactics for Social Change.  Lanham, MD: Madison

Bacha Posh: The Resilient Girls of Afghanistan

Three curly haired Afghan kids look up to the camera
Afghanistan Kids. Source: Army Amber, Creative Commons

Afghanistan has been embroiled in numerous civil wars and regime changes as global powers like Britain, Russia, and the United States have attempted to each bring their own version of peace and governance to the country for the past 150 years. The international community’s involvement has made little progress in quelling the violence during this time span, despite attempts at installing kings, providing assistance, backing rebels, and imposing sanctions. In some ways, the international community has instead reaped the consequence of empowering extremist groups like the Taliban, who have used the money and weapons funneled to the country for the original purpose of fighting the Soviets to stage a takeover of their own once the Soviets withdrew. With this climate as a backdrop, many of the stories from the region told in the West are often focused on soldiers and battles taking place in Afghanistan’s arid desert, with men from the Afghan government, extremist groups, and foreign armies fighting vigilantly for their homeland, whichever land that may be. When the focus shifts, Afghan women take center stage as the West’s fascination with their sheet-like garment–the burka–brings out calls for liberation of the oppressed group; however, on rare occasions, a story of the resilience and resistance of Afghan women pierces through our media landscape and introduces us to a new facet of the human experience.

Inspired by her visit to Pakistani refugee camps and encounters with many Afghan women in 1996, Deborah Ellis wrote a book about an Afghan girl who dons the persona of a boy to provide for her family. An adaption of Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner was released in select theaters in November. Based on the book published in 2000, the narrative follows an 11-year-old girl named Parvana who lives with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. After her father’s imprisonment because of Taliban’s disdain for his western education, her mother and school teacher disguise her as a boy so she can work and become the sole breadwinner in the family, bringing in an income for the household of six. Audiences worldwide are now able to watch Parvana’s journey on the silver screen, but with the revelation that a portion of girls do dress as boys in Afghanistan, many questions arise. What happens if they are caught? How is cross dressing allowed by the families? Do the girls transition to being boys forever? If this is a more common occurrence than previously thought, why doesn’t the international community recognize this subversion being undertaken?

Jenny Nordberg steps in to dive deeper into the subject. Author of the 2014 book The Underground Girls of Kabul: in Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, she spent months tracking down and interviewing families across the country who had a bacha posh, or a girl “dressed up as a boy” in the Dari language. Through her research, she creates the “only original non-fiction work on the practice of bacha posh”, bringing to light the ways in which women in a hostile environment have innovated and found ways to survive under incredible circumstances. Both the fictional tale in The Breadwinner and the real-life stories of bacha posh in The Underground Girls of Kabul bear striking similarities in themes, but combined they also highlight how the experience of each girl is unique to her own personal circumstances.

War

One constant held across both accounts is the presence of war and the Taliban. For the bacha posh, physical and environmental factors force their adaptation. In both the story and in the in-person interviews, Afghan parents reminisce about the brief period of peace in their youth when they freely roamed the streets in their garment of choice without fear during the Soviet rule. It was only when the Taliban took control that the practice of girls dressing as boys became necessary, as the schooling of girls became illegal and all women who had reached puberty were ordered to wear a burka, be accompanied by a male escort, and stay inside. If a woman is caught outside without an escort and a burka, she risks assault and death. This threat drove the decision of Parvana’s family in The Breadwinner, for without the father figure her family was left without a male, and this lead to her mother and siblings being trapped in the house with no way to earn money or buy food at the market. By making Parvana a boy, even at 11, she was able to escort her family members and secure a job reading and writing letters for illiterate men that passed her by on the street.

 

A line of Taliban soldiers stand beside a table handing in their weapons
Former Taliban fighters return arms. Source: Resolute Support Media, Creative Commons

Society

Yet if girls were unable to navigate the street on their own, doesn’t dressing a girl as a boy increase the risk to her safety if she is found out? Many experts Nordberg consulted when she first began her project dismissed the possibility of the bacha posh’s existence as it seemed to run contrary to the Western view of conservative Islamic societies. In a community in which the roles of males and females are so well defined, it is hard to believe that someone crossing from one role to another would not be in the greatest of violations. Shukria Siddiqui, a bacha posh until she was 20, interviewed 15 years later, clarifies this contradiction by giving an example from when she was challenged by three Mujahideen soldiers at her home when she was 17. The soldiers called out for the rumored girl who dressed like a boy, and when she went to her door to answer one of the men stated “Okay, you look like a boy, and you are completely like a boy, so we will call you a boy.”

The soldier’s statement is the stance that most Afghans, male and female, religious and nonreligious, take when confronted with a bacha posh. In The Breadwinner, Parvana lived in constant fear of being found out by those around her, but Nordberg observes that as long as the status quo of the roles remain, meaning boys complete tasks outside the home and women complete the tasks inside the home, there is nothing provoking about a bacha posh’s actions. In their eyes, the child is still conforming to societal norms, unlike if they were to stay a girl and complete traditionally male tasks. As long as the child switches back at an appropriate age to be married, around their late teens, in order to continue fulfilling their role, all is well. This sentiment is also echoed by the majority of families interviewed who raised a bacha posh. They transform their daughter to become a boy anywhere between birth and 10 years old, but as the bacha posh begins to show signs of puberty, they switch them back to assume their female identity with little problem. Only in two rare types of cases did Nordberg find that the transition back caused lasting difficulties for the girl and her family: when the girl exhibits signs of gender dysphoria, and when the transition back to being a girl occurs later in life.

Psychology

Defined by the American Psychiatric Association,

“Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.”

The common term associated with someone who experiences gender dysphoria and identifies with another gender is transgender, however,

“Gender dysphoria is not the same as gender nonconformity, which refers to behaviors not matching the gender norms or stereotypes of the gender assigned at birth. Examples of gender nonconformity (also referred to as gender expansiveness or gender creativity) include girls behaving and dressing in ways more socially expected of boys or occasional cross-dressing in adult men.”

The majority of girls Nordberg spoke with fell into the category of being gender nonconforming; comfortable with being a girl even if they took on traditionally male roles. Yet Zahra, a 17-year-old bacha posh, felt the opposite. Transformed into a bacha posh at birth, she fully embraced the idea of being a boy, reveling in her male friendships and shunning interactions with girls as it was not considered manly to interact with the other sex. After working for several years, Zahra’s mother suggested that she transition back, but this caused Zahra great psychological distress. Zahra refused to change back, and feeling appalled by her now changing body she confessed to Nordberg that should she get the chance she would undergo an operation to permanently transition herself into a boy. This was outside of the norm even for a bacha posh, but it does fit into what would be diagnosed in the West as gender dysphoria. While Nordberg was unable to draw a conclusion as to whether the original bacha posh transition influenced Zahra or if the two happened in tandem, it was an important case to demonstrate that while the majority of bacha posh are not gender dysphoric, there may be gender dysphoric bacha posh.

The other case when the transition out of being a bacha posh is rendered more difficult is when the girl transitions back later in life. In Shukria’s case, she was transitioned back at 20 just before her wedding, set up by her family. She accepted this arrangement and went through with it, but she quickly found that she lacked many of the skills that women her same age were already competent in; cooking, cleaning, and recognizing non-verbal cues from other women were all difficult to pick up. It was as if her brain had settled into the male pattern of behavior and found it difficult to let go. Her steps were too long, her voice was too loud, and she found it hard to relate to idle gossip and conversations around childrearing. Yet, it is important to emphasis that all the problems she encountered stem from social, not biological, norms. When Nordberg asked Shukria if she could teach her, the Swedish born New York based reporter, how to become a man, Shukria look her over and said she was already a man due to her Western mannerisms. To Shukria, the basis of being male or female in Afghanistan was not in biology, and as Shaheed, another woman interviewed who remains a bacha posh at 30, describes, the difference is in freedom, and that “between gender and freedom, freedom is the bigger and more important idea.” 

Malala sits and speaks with David Cameron at a conference about Syria
David Cameron meets with Malala Yousafzai at the Syria Conference. Source: UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons

Heroines

The women in The Underground Girls of Kabul and The Breadwinner all demonstrate this spirit of defiance and freedom, and historically they are no exception. Much like the stories of Joan of Arc and Mulan, Afghanistan also holds a woman folk hero in high regard. During a fight against British troops in 1880 when the Afghan army was close to defeat, a woman rushed out, rallied the troops, and used her veil as flag to lead them to victory. While killed in battle, the memory of the warrior Malalai lives on to inspire both Afghan girls and boys to be strong in the face of adversity. Both Parvana and the bacha posh Nordberg spoke with bring to mind Malalai to give them strength when their own resolve begins to waiver, and even the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is named after Malalai. In 2009 at the age of 12, Malala began blogging for the BBC about her life under Taliban leadership as she was forced out of school. She continued writing for three years until, after rising to prominence for her activism for girls’ education, she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban in an attempt to silence her. Malala survived, and after her miraculous recovery and continued activism she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, making her the youngest person to ever become a Nobel Laureate. Even if their life is dominated by religious leaders, threatened by the Taliban, and restrained due to cultural norms, these women cling to the stories of their collective past in the hopes that one day, they too may be recognized as courageous and valuable in the eyes of their society.