Mary Frances Whitfield: Why? is a collaborative exhibition between the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The exhibition is co-curated by AEIVA Curator John Fields and Dr. Brandon Wolfe, Assistant VP of Campus and Community Engagement in the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UAB. It is on display at AEIVA until November 23, 2019. The images included below are in the exhibition.
Depictions of lynchings are usually loud – they bring into focus the agony of the victims, their bodies beaten and burned, hanging from a tree, or the intense anger, absolute hatred, and pure evil of the perpetrators and spectators as they relish in their acts of terror, dehumanization and brutality. Mary Frances Whitfield invites us to consider another experience, one that often goes unacknowledged or unconsidered artistically and historically. What happens when the spectacle is over, when the crowd disperses, when the terrorists have gone home, having achieved their fill of racial violence for the day? Who comes to claim the victims, to hold their lifeless bodies one last time, to cut them down and lay them to rest?
Whitfield’s paintings are not loud. They depict a silent despair. She transforms the space of public spectacle, of loud chaos, into a private and still experience that focuses on the quiet mourning of the bereaved. For Whitfield, this mourning conditions the lives of black people in her ancestral history and now. Her depictions are dark and heavy, they are full of grief and despair, and this emotional weight is largely held in the bodies of the mourners who literally hold this anguish – and their faces – in their hands. The victims and the mourners are often dressed in bright pastel colors, an image that foregrounds their vibrancy against the backdrop of a thick and consuming darkness. It reminds us of the life they could have lived, a life that was cut short by hate. Wives wrap their arms around the lifeless bodies of their husbands, young boys reach for the dangling feet of their fathers, women touch their protruding bellies, desperately hoping, we might assume, that their unborn children will not meet the same fate as the victim. Bodies of men, women, children, and babies hang from trees, sometimes engulfed in flames, sometimes appearing to sway slowly in the breeze. The stillness of the victims and the stoicism of the mourners in Whitfield’s paintings reflect the normalcy and the familiarly of an ordinary experience, part of daily existence for African Americans in the 18th and early 19th century, a reality wrought with unbearable pain, constant mourning, and overwhelming fear.
The title of the exhibit invites us to ask “Why?”, and the question looms on several levels. Why lynching? Why Albert? Why Sari-Mae? Why Mama and Papa? Why me? Why us? Why then? And maybe most importantly: Why now?
When the slavebody became the blackbody, white people could not let go of the compulsion to maintain dominance over black bodies and black lives. The vilification and demonization of black people took hold in the discourse, and a consensus grew around the need to protect white people and white dominance, a need so desperate it justified brutal violence and severe oppression against the newly “freed” citizens. Whitfield’s paintings are borne out of stories her grandmother told her about life during this time, a time when more than 4,000 black human beings were lynched publicly and without consequence. The work is timeless, though, and as we leave the exhibit and go out into the world, we are forced to wonder why this is still happening. Lynchings today take a different form, but they continue to terrorize and demoralize black communities all over the United States and emphasize the devaluation of black bodies and black lives in our society.
Toni Morrison says that the purpose and the power of art is in its ability to create conversation, one that is “critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely.” If we can ask ourselves “Why?”, if we can have this conversation, if we can engage in this discourse honestly and authentically, if we can accept the truth about the continuing legacy of the slave trade and mass enslavement and lynchings in all of its forms – past and present – and then reconcile ourselves to that truth, then maybe through that conversation, we will see a path forward, one that leads us toward healing, one that will someday allow us to live in the peace and freedom and beauty of Dr. King’s dream. It’s a hard question to answer, not in its complexity but in its power to change our understanding of ourselves, but it’s one that we must ask.
“We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses…. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.” – Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1967
In his last sermon, King echoed the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty to call for national and global attention to address the dire economic circumstances of the poor. He and others founded the Poor People’s Campaign to influence how Americans view poverty. While the 1960s are behind us, poverty is not. A new organization, a new Poor People Campaign, aims to address continuing economic privation.
Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the Poor People’s Campaign (also known as the PPC and the Poor People March) following sustained civil rights action and hard-won legislation. These actions and laws included bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, the formation of the Direct Action Task Force, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From its beginning in 1968, the PPC advocated wages that were high enough to support a “decent life.” It strove to become a powerful, social force to change how America understands poverty and worked to end it. It criticized the portrayal of stereotypes of the nation’s poor as dirty and unhealthy. The Poor People’s Campaign was a populist struggle against economic inequality and a reform movement that questioned how race related to economic and political power. Poverty and prejudice were “related enemies,” according to King. He believed that the poor could effectively confront the power structure if they had economic security, expanded education opportunities, improved housing, and unemployment income.
King recognized that poverty, racism, and power were (and are still) intricately linked. He claimed that, “African Americans are not truly free until they reach economic security.” In 1968, a PPC brochure proclaimed, “Poor people are kept in poverty because they are kept from power.” The organization lobbied against dehumanization and poverty wages. It advocated for changes in the federal food program and a significant expansion of food stamps.
Even though King mentioned “racial imperialism” as the primary cause of poverty among African Americans, his anti-poverty proposals were not limited to black Americans.
A committee of hundred religious leaders from several racial backgrounds helped organize the PPC. More than fifty multiracial organizations attended the first meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 1968. Attendees hoped to organize a march of thousands of people on Washington, DC to unify the nation. These plans shattered with the assassination of Reverend King in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
Following this blow, the key leaders of the PPC, including the SCLC’s new president, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and King’s widow Coretta Scott King, worked to coordinate a new march on Washington, DC. Their goal was to pressure Congress to pass legislation to address employment and housing issues as well as fund a war on poverty. The planned PPC march of 1968 divided into three stages. The first stage was the creation of Resurrection City, a makeshift town at the National Mall from Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. In May and June 1968, this 15-acre urban area served as the home of 1,500 to 3,000 occupants of different racial backgrounds. Resurrection City included a makeshift city hall, a clinic, a general store, and a day care center named for Coretta Scott King. Even though these amenities only covered the bare necessities, some residents received medical attention for the first time in their lives. According to the new PPC, such conditions persist in 2018, as many poor Americans lack health insurance or adequate medical care.
Resurrection City became a symbol for the PPC and made poor people and their fundamental human rights visible to the world. Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, and Barbra Streisand visited Resurrection City, reflecting the attention the encampment received and illustrating the longstanding relationship between celebrities and social issues that continues to this day. The activists arrived from nine regions of the country in groups called caravans. They camped in tents and endured terrible weather that brought severe rain and mud, forcing many residents to build primitive A-frame homes. Resurrection City’s permit expired on June 23, 1968. Police forcibly evicted people (sometimes with tear gas) from the settlement the next day. The second stage of the march would have consisted of hallmarks of the civil rights movement: civil disobedience, nonviolent mass demonstrations, and police arrests. The third stage of the march was a planned national boycott of large industries and shopping areas to pressure business leaders to acknowledge the movement’s demands.
Resurrection City and the other actions organized by the PPC did not produce the results King, the SCLC, and other activists had envisioned. The assassinations of Reverend King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam War hurt the movement causing many to blame Resurrection City leader Reverend Abernathy for the movement’s lack of leadership and disorganization. Racial prejudice, social frictions, and tension between Southern and Northern citizens eroded the movement further. While the movement was down, it was not out. While the Poor People Campaign’s proposed antipoverty legislation did not occur, the organization’s actions did continue discussions about poverty, race, and power. These sustained conversations helped contribute to the launch of the new Poor People’s Campaign (also known as the new PPC or the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival) in 2018. Like the PPC of the 1960s, the new PPC consists of a diverse coalition of activists battling poverty and racism, white supremacy, and greed.
Led by Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, a Disciples of Christ minister and the leader of the Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina, and the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, a Presbyterian minister and the co-director of New York’s Kairos (the Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice), the new PPC calls for a national moral revival. The organization claims that although the United States is among the wealthiest of nations, it harbors severe economic inequalities that have persisted for decades, even centuries. Americans continue segregation by their living wages, according to the PPC. The organization has chapters in most U.S. states and strives to highlight problems associated with poverty and inequality. The new PPC worries that recent U.S. federal tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy have hurt less affluent members of society. Additionally, organizers reveal concern with increased funding to battle illegal immigration and illegal drugs, which can lead to rampant addiction. It fears that this funding detracts money and attention away from much-needed poverty programs.
To counter such power imbalances, the new PPC hopes to see a reinforcement of the Voting Rights Act to reduce the voting suppression of convicted felons. The modern-day activists of the new PPC argue that negativity surrounding poverty in America has persisted for centuries. They argue that an entrenched culture of racism and discrimination exists within the economic and political systems of the United States, and favors those with large bank accounts. The new PPC wants people to reconsider how they think about poverty. It emphasizes that poor people are victims of a power struggle, not moral failures. It asks for a moral revival to combat
While the U.S. economy has grown, the inequity between the richest and poorest Americans has also grown. Many lack money and health insurance.
Systemic racism. Imprisoned African Americans who are unable to vote, African American residents of Flint, Michigan grappling with a tainted water supply, and Muslims and immigrants facing discrimination are all examples of racism in American society.
In 2017, the U.S. federal government spent $190 billion on antipoverty programs while it spent $668 billion on the military.
Ecological destruction. Flint’s tainted water illustrates how ecological problems and pollution often affect minorities and the poor, who do not have the economic or political means to combat such problems.
The new PPC also boasts some familiar faces. Bernard Lafayette, a friend of Reverend King and the national coordinator of the first PPC, joined organization to train a new generation of PPC activists.
The question remains whether the new PPC will encounter the same problems Reverend King and other organizers faced during the 1960s: Is the message heard and received?
New PPC activists arrived on Capitol Hill on February 5, 2018, to deliver their message of economic justice to the U.S. Congress. The Capitol Police asked them to leave before they gave this message. Fifty years after the formation of the first Poor People’s Campaign, it is clear that its messages and struggles endure. The new PPC organized a 40-day event in May to late June 2018 that featured nonviolent action by the poor, clergy, and sympathetic allies. Echoing the inclusiveness of the 1960s, this movement united people across race, economics, religion, gender, geography, and sexuality. Similar to the 1960s, the event featured acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, teach-ins, workshops, cultural events, and other activities. The 40-day event culminates tomorrow, June 23, in Washington, D.C. for a rally to Stand Against Poverty, Mass Rally & Moral Revival. Although the event ends, participation can continue in various activities by
Joining an organization. Whether people join the new PPC or another organization, people can provide strength in numbers.
Speaking out. Writing to political representatives, media outlets, and social media sites can help spread the message.
Voting and helping others vote. Voting is another way of voicing opinions. Working at polling places, encouraging others to vote, and working for voting rights helps gives agency to more people.
Nicole is a freelance writer and educator based in the United States. She believes that her writing is an extension of her career as a tutor since they both encourage learning and discussing new things. Her degrees in creative writing, education, and psychology help her understand her target audience and how to reach them in creative and educational ways. She has written about fitness and health, substance abuse and treatment, personal finance and economics, parenting, relationships, higher education, careers, travel, and many other topics, sometimes in the same piece. When she isn’t writing, you might find Nicole running, hiking, and swimming. She has participated in several 10K races and hopes to compete in a marathon one day. A longtime volunteer at animal shelters, Nicole is a passionate supporter of organizations that help animals. She also enjoys spending time with the dogs and cats in her life and spoiling them rotten.
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.
** 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
You love people. When you set your heart to love and accept people, it become contagious.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
*** 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.
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:
Violent resistance would inspire an annihilating response from the “well-armed white majority”;
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);
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;
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.
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
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