In honor of the 50thAnniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Institute for Human Rights is publishing various outlooks on the life and contributions of Dr. King. This is the second entry in the series.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9
The Peacemaker Defined
When confronted by a system permitting injustice, denying universal human rights, and thwarting peace for marginalized groups, many of us are deeply unsettled. To fully understand the destruction humans have wrought on one another is to simultaneously accept one’s own capacity to perpetuate evil in the world. Humans are capable of peace and war, justice and violence. A critical question arises here: what compels an individual to choose peace in the face of adversity? What inspires an individual to rise above violence, utilizing an ethos of peace as both a means and an end? In short, how can we become peacemakers?
Informed from many interviews of indigenous persons weaving peace from conflict, Marc Gopin offers the following personal traits that embody the peacemaker:
A strong sense of ethnic roots that is combined paradoxically with universal love
An embrace of love and the way of the heart as the key to peace
A consistent desire to seek out shared values across the boundaries of groups
A desire for leadership through social network creation
Long-term engagement with adversaries and faith in the value of ongoing debate and slow and steady influence
In Bridges Across an Impossible Divide, Gopin (2012) is quick to add that any and all of us can be peacemakers – if we so choose. It boils down to choice: choosing how to move through conflict, choosing to leave the world better than we found it.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Peacemaker
There is no doubt Dr. King ushered a new wholeness to American culture. His contributions to American society are legendary: leading the American Civil Rights Movement, raising collective American consciousness to address structural discrimination, and developing innovative strategies of nonviolent social protest still used throughout the globe. He taught a generation of civil and human rights footsoldiers, he constructed new theological language grounded in human equality, and he personally transformed the lives of those around him. He was a person of immense spiritual power– calling on his training as a man of the cloth to inform his philosophy and theology demanding racial equality in the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among the most prominent and revered peacemakers the world has ever seen.
Per Gopin’s definition, peacemaking describes not only works but also the personality of an individual. Being a peacemaker is not just directing policy change or charismatic leadership, but an ethos of resilient gentleness, and formidable commitment to the transformation of conflict to better the human experience. It is an understanding that peacemaking is not a vocation – it is a divine calling. Today, we remember that his faith and deeds literally transformed the soul of America. Dr. King was a true American peacemaker.
Gopin, M. (2012). Bridges across an impossible divide: The inner lives of Arab and Jewish peacemakers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
** The succession of package bombings presently terrorizing the citizens of Texas has prompted a repost of this blog.
After the events in Charlottesville and the incredible outpouring of hate and violence, many of us are wondering – what can I do to confront hate, white supremacy, and racism? I know that many of us feel disheartened, furious, or even helpless in the face of evil. What can we do to take action?
Here is a practical guide based on my experience in human rights and peace advocacy.
1. Know your human rights.
This is an important step that often gets forgotten. Learning the content and extent of basic human rights will give you the tools and language to confront hate. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the key document guiding human rights advocacy. It is based on the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights and is founded on the core values of equality, non-discrimination, and human dignity. Each human life is of equal value, and the human rights of all are worth fighting for.
Discrimination, suppression, racism, marginalization, and violence against individuals or groups are human rights violations that must be confronted. There are many different ways to do that: by reporting human rights violations to the authorities or other entities (e.g., you can report civil rights violations to the ACLU; if you are at UAB, you can contact the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), by documenting them, or by learning about them and educating others. You can learn more about international human rights by visiting the website of the United Nations Human Rights and by reading our blog, in which we cover international human rights issues.
2. Speak up in the face of injustice.
Once you know what human rights and human rights violations are, I encourage you to pay attention and speak up in the face of injustice. Document, record, and monitor what’s going on around you. Pay attention to what happens in your everyday life, and if you see injustice, say something. Notice if someone speaks over your colleague of color or always disrespects the points made by the women on your team. Think about diversity when creating a job ad. Call your friend out on that racist or sexist joke. Talk to your relatives about your views (I know, that is a hard one). If you feel uncomfortable confronting the perpetrator, team up with others who agree with your view that racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. are unacceptable. Again, document and report what happened and find a way to inform authorities, your diversity officer, or your equal opportunity department. Look for ways to empower the victim by expressing your support, talking to him/her, and educating them about their human rights.
The goal is to make “every day” suppression of a specific group based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability status just as unacceptable as the violence and hatred in Charlottesville. It’s these “normal”, hidden human rights violations that are particularly dangerous to our society and that we have to confront together.
3. Be aware of your own biases.
The last months, and especially the events last weekend in Charlottesville, have shown that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and any other systematic suppression of specific groups has become socially acceptable in certain circles. Racism is now fully in the open; white supremacists feel emboldened to show their faces while expressing their hateful views. This has an impact of how we view ourselves and our position in society. It is on all of us – and especially on white people – to confront hate. As a former neo-Nazi said to the Huffington Post, “White people need to solve the problem of white supremacy. It’s white people’s problem, we created it, and it’s a problem we need to fix.”
It is incredibly important to be aware of your own biases (and we all have them). Realize if you cross the street when a black man walks towards you. Notice if you assume that someone is less competent because she is a woman, a person of color, or Muslim. Think about systemic racism and structural violence in your own environment and find ways to confront them. Actively learn about how our society has grown to marginalize some to the benefit of others.
One of the ways to overcome some of these biases and stereotypes is to engage with those who are different. Research reveals that interpersonal contact is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice, a theory usually referred to as “contact hypothesis”. I encourage you to reach out and make new friends outside of your race, religion, and gender.
4. Join a movement or a cause that fits your passions and interests.
Obviously, being aware is not enough. Join a movement and talk with others who feel the same. Look for a rally in your community. Organize a vigil. Participate in a discussion. Engage with others. Get together formally or informally. Look for opportunities to talk. Here in Birmingham, you can become part of the StandAsOne Coalition . If you are a UAB student, you can join the Students for Human Rights student club or come talk to us at the Institute for Human Rights.
It is important to find a cause that fits your interests, your passion, and your skills. I know I said this before – not all of us are born to be activists or community organizers. We cannot all become Martin Luther Kings, Nelson Mandelas, or Leymah Gbowees. But we all can contribute by supporting the movement. Maybe you have great writing or social media skills. Maybe you like to organize or have great experience on how to implement ideas. Maybe you know about technology. Maybe you love public speaking. Think about what you are good at and how your skill and talent can be used to move the cause forward.
5. Call your representatives.
One of the most effective ways to achieve policy change in this country is to call your representatives. It is a very easy and quick thing to do. FYI – calling is much more impactful than writing an email, Facebook message, or letter. The message can be brief and go something like this:
My name is ____________________.
I live in Representative/Senator ______________________ ‘s district. (Since you can vote for/against the legislator, your opinion is more important.)
(At some point the staff will probably ask you for your zip code. This helps them verify that you do live in their district.)
I would like Representative/Senator _________________ to denounce the violence and hate in Charlottesville (or support any other cause relating to human rights, civil rights, etc.) (This is a general request.)
I would like Rep/Senator _________________ to vote in favor of House Bill XYZ/Senate Bill XYZ (This is a specific request.)
You can also include a personal story of how your human rights have been violated or about injustices you observed. Keep it brief and to the point.
Thank you, __________________ for your time.
Please be polite to the staff (which is who you will most likely get on the line). The staff does not have influence on the decision-making process, but they will record your call. They do not mind taking opposing views as long as the conversation is civil.
Educating others about the dangers of evil is key to confronting hate. The movement will grow momentum by gaining new members. Education does not necessarily have to be formal (as in “let me sit you down and tell you about human rights”, although this is important too), it can be informal, by leading by example, or by bringing a friend along to a conversation you’re having. It can happen person to person, on social media, or any other platform you use to connect with others. Creating art, poems, and performances are incredible ways to get your point across to people who might find formal education doesn’t resonate with them.
Personally, I think it is such a privilege to be an educator. It is one of my favorite parts of my job to talk to students about issues that affect the world and to encourage them to learn more about these topics. You can do that too: Teach your children (or your nieces, nephews, cousins…) about kindness, human rights, and peace building. Teach them also about systemic suppression, racism, and the way our society has oppressed minorities. Talk to them about what bothers you and what you would like to achieve. You don’t have to be a professor or teacher to educate others. You have learned about human rights, and sharing this knowledge with others will be useful not only to them, but also to you. It will help you specify your ideas and clarify what you deem most important.
One of the fastest and easiest opportunities to make an impact is to donate to an organization that fights for human rights or civil rights. We at the Institute would certainly appreciate your donation because raising awareness for human rights is our daily business – thank you for thinking about it – and here are some other organizations to consider as well:
Finally, and most importantly, self-care is incredibly important for all of us who work in advocacy. Confronting hatred, violence, and suppression is a big task, and honestly, it is exhausting, depressing, and hard to deal with mentally and physically. It is easy to get discouraged and to give up. It is therefore important to know what you can do (and what you cannot do), what you are willing to do, and what your priorities are. You cannot do everything, but if everyone does their part, we will eventually get there, step by step. Focus on the local level, your own community as a start. That is how we change the world – person by person.
Also, make sure you do not get overloaded with terrible news. Take care of your needs and shut down Facebook, Twitter, cable news, etc. when you start to feel overwhelmed. Enjoy time with your friends and family. Be kind to yourself and realize that real progress takes patience.
Remember, we are in this together. We can do it, one step at a time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. isVice 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.
Disclosure: The author is currently enrolled in Professor Eisler’s UAB course, “Cultural Transformation Theory” through the Department of Anthropology. Some statements in this post result from class session discussions and personal interactions between Professor Eisler and Nicholas Sherwood.
Riane Eisler is a peacemaker. She is an attorney. A researcher. A mother. A grandmother. She is also a Holocaust survivor. On October 26th 2017, UAB’s Department of Anthropology and Institute for Human Rights hosted Eisler to deliver a keynote address to the annual Peace and Justice Studies Association conference held in Birmingham, Alabama. Eisler’s address to the UAB, PJSA, and Birmingham communities served as a call-to-arms for the audience members to embrace a complex and nuanced understanding of peace-through-partnership. Eisler posited the normative value of peace can only be internalized and implemented once a systemic understanding of peace has been embraced by intellectuals, activists, and advocates alike.
Eisler’s analytic framework is housed within the intellectual school of systems theory. In her case, a systemic approach to culture makes room for the total sum of human interactions, from the micro intrapersonal level, the intermediary levels, to the the macro transnational level. This interdisciplinary approach encourages integrative research from many fields of study to understand cultures themselves and how to transform cultures of domination towards cultures of partnership. To study partnership and dominator societies, Eisler and other researchers affiliated with the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) utilize a vast array of academic disciplines, including biology, functional neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and political science. Eisler’s most prolific work, The Chalice and the Blade, marked the beginning of her scholarly oeuvre, and first introduced Cultural Transformation Theory (CTT) to the world-at-large. The central concept of CTT is the “partnership-domination” continuum, whereby any given culture may be ranked according to specific identifying markers: family / childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and cultural narratives / language. A culture’s placement is influenced many factors. However, a fundamental differential between these two absolute points is the relative equality (or lack thereof) of both primordial halves of humanity: male and female.
Cultures with gender inequality lean towards a domination orientation, whereas cultures with gender egalitarian values lean more towards a partnership orientation. Furthermore, dominator societies are also marked by authoritarian ranking in all social relations (from the family level to the international level) and a high degree of accepted abuse and violence (again, from the familial to the international levels; Eisler, 1987). By contrast, partnership societies are noticeable by gender equality, egalitarian and democratic relations (from the family to the national level), and a low degree of built-in violence (Eisler, 1987). To orient a culture towards partnership and peace, four cornerstones of society must be addressed: 1) family / childhood relations, 2) gender relations, 3) economic relations, and 4) narratives / language (Eisler, 2017). Observing how a culture embodies these cornerstones offers the culture’s placement on the “partnership-domination” continuum, and any attempt to transform a cultures towards partnership must simultaneously attend to these four markers of a society’s norms and values.
First, family and childhood relations. Eisler’s book The Power of Partnership (Eisler, 2002), explores key relationships in every person’s life and how these relationships fundamentally orient an individual towards patterns of behavior aligning with partnership- or domination-based behaviors. For any individual, family and childhood relations set the template for relationships for the rest of her or his life. As children grow, they consciously and unconsciously adopt the behaviors they learn from their parents and family members. Values held by a family, such as embracing diversity or quashing the questioning of authority figures, can and do impact the socialization of a child.
Partnership societies typically socialize children to be empathic of others, tolerant of diversity, and explore the world with curiosity instead of fear (Rando, 2010). By contrast, dominator societies instill in children an unquestioning loyalty towards authority figures (typically the patriarch of the family), suspicion of Otherness, and a generalized fear of acting dis-concordantly with the norms of society. To create peace from the bottom-up, families must socialize their children to understand diversity is a ‘given’ of the human condition, empathy is a powerful tool to be used for good, and respect for authority may also mean resisting abusive or unfair treatment.
Eisler’s second cornerstone, gender relations, explores how cultures treat the fundamental difference between two halves of humanity: male and female. In dominator societies, conventionally feminine traits (such as caring and nurturing) relegated as being ‘lesser to’ conventionally masculine traits (such as aggression and violence; Eisler, 1987). Partnership societies tend to view genders as equal in right and measure (Eisler, 1987). This question of gender equality, according to Eisler, is critical to understanding how society views Otherness. Gender identity and expression are among the first identifiers a person assesses when meeting someone else, and how a society ranks (or chooses not to rank) this difference is critical to understanding conflict and peace within culture. Why do some cultures actively repress one gender in favor of another? Are rigid stereotypes socialized and expected in men and women? And what does this gendered system of ranking mean for other kinds of relationships? Eisler believes peace is impossible without taking a critical look at gender disparity across all cultures and societies.
The Real Wealth of Nations (Eisler, 2007) explores Eisler’s third cornerstone, economic relations. For a culture to move towards or sustain a partnership orientation, their economic system (whether socialist, capitalist, etc.) must promote caring policies that reward consumers and producers alike to engage in industries that promote our innate human capacities, such as creativity, care-giving, and sustainable development (Eisler, 2007). Economic systems featuring rampant inequality between classes, the devaluation of caring work (such as caring for the elderly, traditional “house work”, and the empowerment of marginalized populations), and mechanisms of suppression are dominator-based.
Caring economics, a partnership approach, features the reward of caring work not only by capital, but also policies such as: paid maternity / paternity leave, universal healthcare, educational standards, and just treatment of employees in any job sector. The benefits of moving towards a caring economic system are mighty, including: gender equality in public and private sectors, reports of higher life satisfaction, higher profit margins for for-profit companies, higher customer satisfaction, and higher GDP; Eisler uses the successes of Scandanavian countries to support her economic hypothesis (Eisler, 2007). Companies that have adopted a partnership-orientation in their business model include: First Tennessee National Corporation, New Age Transportation, Johnson & Johnson, and Berrett-Koehler (Eisler, 2007).
Finally, with respect to the partnership-domination continuum, the particular narratives of a culture offers insight into the normative ideals enshrined in a society. Myths such as the “Original Sin”, a narrative common to many religions, espouse a dark view of human nature that features an underlying belief in a fatal flaw (or flaws) inherent to all members of humanity. Idioms such as “survival of the fittest” imply the human condition is typically competitive and warlike. These two examples belong to the domination paradigm of culture. Rewriting cultural narratives that sanctify norms such as love, acceptance, and mutual aid would reorient a society towards partnership. Anthropologists have long attempted to glean lessons from the myths and symbols found in societies; these same lessons can and should be applied in a modern context. Repeated stories become narratives. These narratives can become myths. While no myth deserves to be destroyed, as cultural erasure is a gross human rights violation, a reframing and re-contextualizing of dominator myths will serve to move a society towards peace.
An Eislerian peace process entails a cultural shift towards partnership values, with emphasis on four cornerstones of society: family / childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and narratives / language. Her systemic approach to peace promotion covers broad swaths of the human condition, and requires a working-through at all levels of society, from the macro, to the micro, and between. Eisler’s insights provide a new and necessary approach to peace promotion: peace is systemic.
Peace requires a conceptual breadth that transcends typical disciplinary lanes. Finally, to orient a society towards peaceful partnership will require a reconfiguration of the most basic elements of a society, from interpersonal relations to the global political system. Given our human potentials for domination and partnership alike, the choice to create and sustain peace is firmly ours to make.
Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Eisler, R. (2002). The Power of Partnership. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Eisler, R. (2007). The Real Wealth of Nations. San Fransisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Eisler, R. (2017). Building a caring democracy: Four cornerstones for an integrated progressive agenda. Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, 4(1).
Rando, L. M. (2010). Caring & Connected Parenting. Pacific Grove, CA: The Center for Partnership Studies.
“And the Oscar goes to, Mad Max! No.” The audience laughs as they await the announcement from host Louis C.K. for the winner of the 2016 Best Documentary Short. He pauses, then reads “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy!” Applause erupts as Obaid-Chinoy makes her way to the stage, and during her brief acceptance speech she reveals that “Last week, the Pakistani Prime Minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.” Another round of applause sweeps across the theater as the crowd cheers the progress made to end this extreme case of violence against women.
Obaid-Chinoy’s film focuses on eighteen-year-old Saba, a Pakistani girl who was the victim of an attempted honor killing, defined by the BBC as “the murder of a person accused of ‘bringing shame’ upon their family. Victims have been killed for refusing to enter a marriage, committing adultery or being in a relationship that displeased their relatives. In many instances, the crimes are committed by family members against a female relative.” Saba survived the encounter, and the resulting documentary chronicling her experience caught the attention of human rights activists around the world. Pressure from these groups was put on the Pakistani government to change the law allowing the perpetrators of honor crimes to avoid charges should the victim or relatives of the victim forgive them, and as of October 2016 the law was changed so that there are now mandatory prison sentences for those who commit an honor killing. However, this is not the case for every country, as other loopholes exist to protect the perpetrator while simultaneously punishing the victim.
During my stay in Jordan, a second film on honor crimes caught my attention. Shown to the local community at the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in downtown Amman, I sat with 50 other people as we watched If You Meant to Kill Me, a 2014 feature length documentary by Jordanian filmmaker Widad Shafakoj. Her film spotlights Jordanian women who are survivors of honor crimes but were detained in prison by the state “for their own protection” due to the lack of shelters serving victims in the community. These women would spend years inside their cell, released only after a family member signs a paper stating they would not harm her or until the guards arbitrarily decide to let her go. Once released, the women often have no money, no community connections, and no support to help them start again.
Jordanians who commit honor crimes face the threat of arrest in theory, but traditions and stigmas going back generations have created informal barriers to prevent the perpetrators from conviction. An honor crime is not committed by a single individual but instead multiple individuals, ranging from immediate family members to a group within the community. This poses a difficulty for police to convict participants because they must identify an entire social network. To counter this difficulty, they have adopted a second approach that only involves a single person: the female target/survivor. By putting the target/survivor in jail, it relieves the justice system of the stress of convicting an entire family or worrying about another crime being committed. The system also faces little backlash for this decision as the families of the women imprisoned accomplishes two tasks. Without advocates to help their case, the female target/survivor resorts to her families for a signature for release; thus, exposing herself to a future risk of violence.
Jordan is publicizing its work on improving other women’s issues inside of its borders, with some measured success. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, and ratified by Jordan in 1992 with the intention of allowing women to have equal rights under the law. However, Jordan still maintains two reservations to the document:
The first reservation is against Article 9, which states that women and men should be granted equal rights in transferring their nationality to their children. Currently, a child of a Jordanian man and a foreign woman can take Jordanian citizenship, but a child of a Jordanian woman and a foreign man cannot take Jordanian citizenship without a special identification card. The second reservation is against Article 16, which states “Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.” Here is where the difficulty lies, for within a marriage the woman has far less legal power and is therefore tied to the relationship formally and informally, even when violence is introduced.
Freedom House, in 2010, reported that while “domestic abuse is a valid reason for initiating such a divorce, it is often very difficult for a woman to prove her case, because Shari‘a courts require the testimony of two male witnesses.” This poses a significant deterrent for victims to come forward as their own testimony will not be adequate in a court of law. They also risk forced imprisonment for their safety should they come forward, making the risk even less of an option. Besides acting to protect their own safety, the women also shoulder the burden of staying to protect their children. Freedom House reports that the father is the de facto guardian of his children, and while the mother may be able to leave with the children initially, should she remarry she would lose custody. This forces the mother into a position of staying in an abusive situation, where there is a threat of death, or leaving without the security of a second income source to support herself and her children.
With the outcry growing louder to find a better solution for these women instead of placing them in protective imprisonment, a small number of departments and shelters developments give an attempt at a solution. The Jordanian government created the Family Protection Department within the Public Security Directorate in 1997 to work specifically on cases of domestic violence and sexual assault; however, their focus is children in the family, instead of the women. In 1999, the Jordanian Women’s Union opened a shelter capable of housing 20 women. The Family Reconciliation Centre opened its first house for 50 women in 2007 and a second in 2009 for 80 women. A
Between the three current shelters, a maximum of 150 women can be protected in a non-prison environment, but with a population of 9.5 million as of 2016, the number of shelters are incredibly too small to adequately serve the women of Jordan. Even if women are gaining more rights to interact equally in the public sphere, the lack of safety for some women in the private sphere blocks them from participating in this progress.
The dedication of more resources is necessary to ensure the women in danger are properly cared for in a safe environment. Additionally, attention to convicting perpetrators is imperative; allowing the women to reenter society knowing they are not at risk for future harm. Freedom House does note that Jordan is taking steps to enact more punishments that are forceful: “stricter sentences are now issued for honour killings and a new specialized tribunal was set up by the Ministry of Justice in 2009 to hear such cases.” The arrests of those committing the acts must occur immediately to hasten the release of the victimized women presently held indefinitely within the Jordanian prison system.
“Nothing that has been uncovered to date suggests that anyone intended to poison the people of Flint” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint report was authored in response to the growing cries from community members, government officials, victims, and bystanders concerned with the abject lack of proper response to Flint water crisis which began roughly at the middle of 2014. The Flint Water Crisis, nationally and internationally infamous for the beleaguered and dangerous handling by all levels of government, has been documented, historicized, lectured upon, and dissected from news publishers, academics institutions, watchdog groups, government organizations, and everyone in between. The bottom line is government officials cut costs in water sanitation and pipe replacements, the consequences of which sparked a full-blown state of emergency, and finally culminated in the deaths of Flint citizens from Legionnaire’s disease and other complications from the consumption of unclean water; those implicated range from District Water Supervisor Busch to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. The failings in Flint, as argued by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, extend far beyond the ineptitude of handfuls of government officials and their lack of planning or preparedness. The requisite conditions necessary for a crisis of this magnitude festered many years ago, perhaps as far back as the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. Flint’s problems are institutional and systemic, and unfortunately, it took a catastrophe to bring these issues to the surface.
Structural racialization is understood as the tendency for social groups to “organize around structures that produce discriminatory results… without themselves possessing any personal animus” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). In other words, an individual can actively contribute to community systems that result in suppression without actually harboring ill will to the victims of suppression themselves. Ignorance/implicit bias, according to john a. powell (2010), is the primary driver behind structural racialization and its horrifying consequences. Implicit bias–directly linked to structural racialization–sustains the longevity of the structures which cause discrimination, and these structures are kept alive only if the contributors to the structures are unaware of the malevolent consequences of the structures themselves (powell, 2010). In the case of Flint, structural racialization began many years before the water crisis, and these implicit, racial structures ensured destruction from the crisis unfairly affected largely black, poor, politically unconnected individuals in the Flint area (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). Using the term ‘structural racialization’ to describe a public health catastrophe, such as the Flint Water Crisis, offers no binding legal or moral prescription. There is no way to sue a ‘structure’ for unfair or discriminatory harm. The structure, in these cases, is reciprocally determined by every individual who unknowingly benefits from the structure and does not actively fight against the structure’s survival (powell, 2010). The case of Flint is rife with example. Contribution to underlying power structures such as these begins with implicit bias- it is the first stronghold keeping the structure in place. Implicit bias, by definition, is unseen and unfelt. In this case, the denizens of Flint and the surrounding areas had no awareness of their complicity in structural racialization. Without this awareness, there can be no hope to fight it.
Beyond the psychology of the issue is the legalistic support of structural racialization. In Flint, this involves segregated housing. The 1900-1930s saw a time of deeply-seated racist and discriminatory housing market practices that forcibly shepherded blacks and poorer whites into select neighborhoods in Flint. These were effectively ‘ghettos’ and ensured black renters and homeowners were segregated from whites (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). Fast forward to present day: the neighborhoods hit hardest by the Water Crisis are neighborhoods that historically have belonged to poor and black renters and homeowners. Racist business practices in the Jim Crow era exacerbated the loss and destruction felt by black and poor Flint citizens in the present day.
This is not to say the black community in Flint is the only one to feel the deleterious effects of the water crisis. This public health emergency does not discriminate along ethnic lines. The discriminatory practices that trapped black Flint citizens holds that honor alone. In 2017, a full three years after the crisis began, clean water is still an issue in Flint. What do we tell the citizens of Flint? How can they take civic action to expedite the process of returning to ‘normal’ life post-crisis? Diana Francis, noted peacemaker and democracy advocate, espouses the concept of ‘speaking truth to power’. This notion contends people–everyday concerned citizens–are the impetus of action in situational injustice. Indeed, the recent criminal charges brought against Flint city administrators and politicians show a ‘top-down’ approach to this crisis is both unrealistic and ineffective. For Francis, the true heroes in this story are citizens affected by and emphatic to the crisis. Examining the normative response to Flint reveals a public willing to undertake protest and direct action, and a public expecting a direct confrontation with the individuals and systemic structures responsible for this crisis. Here are some examples: a music festival raising awareness and money for the victims of Flint, national groups donating time and energy to provide resources to disenfranchised Fint citizens, whistleblowers risking their livlihoods to make the crisis public, and academics donating their skills to investigating the crisis itself. These civil society actors may hold the key to eliminating the effects of the Flint water crisis and eradicating the conditions that precipitated the crisis in the first place. Of course, this empowered response is not an assumed reaction.
In the face of a fully-fledged public health emergency, many citizens in Flint did not feel any semblance of trust in their elected officials to mitigate the crisis without state- or national-level intervention. Without this trust, the citizens may have felt unable or ineffective to act against the discriminatory power structures in Flint. This problem, unlike replacing pipes, cannot be ameliorated by federal funding or outside medical intervention. Addressing this collective distrust will involve some form of cultural transformation. These deeper fixes must involve the access to elected officials the general public has and the public’s ability to provide continuous feedback to these officials. At several times in the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017), citizens of Flint (of all ethnicities) went on the record saying their concerns regarding water safety went unaddressed due to many factors, such as:
1) no knowledge of how to reach elected officials,
2) feeling their complaints were ‘unheard’ or ‘unseen’ to those who could help the situation,
3) fear of retaliation if undocumented immigrants or individuals with criminal records came forward with concerns, and
4) willful neglect on the part of government officials who simply did not feel accountable for the plights of minorities (involving both ethnicity and socioeconomic status) in the Flint area.
Moving forward, how can both human rights advocates and ordinary citizens protect rights equally in all corners of the globe and also address the grievances of individuals in Flint? A shift towards environmental justice may be the answer. This term means two things. First, all persons, regardless of identifying characteristics (ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, income level, etc.) have the right to enjoy the environment equally. Second, the responsibility of civic participation in the protection and maintenance of the environment belongs to all persons (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). Environmental justice takes its cue from Third Generation Human Rights (aka right to the environment) and adds the necessary ingredient of civic participation. As I have stated previously on this blog, human rights are protected by “people, not documents”. Given the second caveat of environmental justice, what happens if ordinary people have no avenue to address a public health hazard? A crisis like Flint erupts. What conditions predicate an inability to make these addresses? This post contends a key condition is structural racialization. Addressing the massive failures apparent in the Flint Water Crisis moves far beyond faulty equipment and the Flint city administration’s glacial response time. Addressing this egregious human rights violation requires analysis going back at least a century in order to fully understand the complex interaction between history and the present. Furthermore, the only long-term, stable solution to this issue is to equip the citizens of Flint with inexperienced political power and know-how. This may include any of the following: a free, fair, and frequent election process; a truly representative (i.e. ethnicity, socio-economic status) local administration; a political mechanism by which citizens can openly voice public health concerns; and funding available in case large-scale crises such as these emerge. Environmental justice in Flint, Michigan will only be achieved when the insidious structures barring unfettered access to a clean environment and free critique of those hindering this access are dismantled in their entirety.
Barack Obama, in one of his last acts as president, signed a proclamation that designated the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument. For those unaware, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Bethel Baptist Church, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul United Methodist Church, portions of the 4th Avenue Business District, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. These locations are “hallowed grounds” for Birmingham because they serve as the epicenter American Civil Rights Movement. We speak of the history regarding these locations. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as the site of a horrific bombing that claimed the lives of four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. However, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was also—and still continues to serve as–a social center and lecture hall for education and social awareness; a headquarters for activism; and a platform for heralded visitors as it did in the past, for leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and most recently, Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch who spoke her final message as a public servant. The Colored Masonic Temple, which beyond its beautiful architecture, sat as the centerpiece for lively Black owned businesses and a booming downtown social life. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the movement’s top leaders strategized in room 30 of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which also became known as the “war room”. Additionally, in this room, Dr. King made the decision to submit himself to being jailed—resulting in a “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. To this day, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” serves as the most important written document of the civil rights era because of its tangible reproduced accounts in the fight for freedom and King’s response to the broad criticisms he has received from around the country. As you can imagine, I can write at considerable length about the historical facts and pieces of information I have picked up from the Birmingham Civil Rights District. However, the focus of this post is to address why this national monument is important.
The National Monument is a Mile Marker for Racial and Social Progress
What a society and its citizens choose to remember and create moments for, communicates a great deal about where their beliefs lie. At the same time, there is essential learning in understanding what a society chooses to forget. That said, I think that it is critical for each generation to understand the struggles and sacrifices many have endured to achieve equal rights because that cultural memory plays a role in the shaping of our collective identity. To this degree, we must accept the ugly truth that racism is embedded within our society and remnants of its power still resides within today’s social structure. In order for us to move forward in the solving of social problems, we must embrace this part of our history and understand how the intersections of race, class, privilege, gender, and so forth influences current issues. If not, then the politics of denial will continue to define teachings of American Civil Rights Movement into a one month a year curriculum composed of mainstream heroes that is not taught widely enough or comprehensively addressed at various school levels. Through the national monument, we as global citizens are pushed to think critically about our past. We are challenged to ask ourselves how can we move forward in the fight for equality and equity locally and globally. As important, we are reminded that the fight is not over.
This National Monument Preserves a “Balanced Realness” of African-American Culture
There is more to African-American culture than the mainstream depictions which tend to populate and reinforce negative stereotypes through mainstream media. The story of black people in Birmingham is one which highlights how individuals are able to rise from second class citizenship to obtain an education, contribute to society, maintain families, and overcome multiple challenges serves as a critical element of our American lineage. Through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we are afforded the opportunity to hear those stories; learn of all the heroes and their sacrifices; and to speak with some of those “living griots” who volunteer to share their own knowledge and experiences with the public. And, it is just not in the very people. As previously stated, this national monument is hallowed grounds because the location itself is a symbolic repository of African-American culture that has often been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, and left to stand as unidentified culture markers in major cities.
The National Monument Reinforces the Hope of Our Collective Community
The Birmingham Civil Rights District is not just Black history; it is American history. In a society that continues to diversify and splinter, it is crucial for us to be reminded that we are still one community. Together, we share a common heritage and history of hope and resilience through tough times. To me, the beauty of the civil rights movement is that when you reflect, there are continuous instances where multiple ethnic and cultural groups have decided to unite in the face of oppression. Today, we are facing with some unique challenges. There are segments of our population who are not only oppressed, but seeking refuge and allies to stand with them. As we look for answers, our national monument stands as a constant reminder that we are the change that we wish to see, and all we have to do is come together. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”
In closing, the national monument is more than just a series of historical buildings and educational centers containing a collection of objects and documents. It is a powerful reminder of Birmingham’s culture and its impact on the larger American story. I am confident that as the fight for equality, equity and inclusion continues, we will find a way to find opportunity in the midst of life’s challenges because that is what we do. In the words of John Henrik Clarke, “What we have done before, we can do again.”
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.