Students in schools across the nation will pay homage to Martin Luther King Jr. this week. His likeness will appear in your Google search bar. Tribute will be paid, in the form of feel good highlights of “our” successes in overcoming racism and sadness from the tragedy of his assassination. Most will hear a piece of his “I Have a Dream” speech. We will look fondly at our growth– we defeated racism in our time!– and we will move on.
Nearly fifty-three years later and the Negro is still not free. The riches of freedom and the security of justice remain but a dream. We remain unsatisfied by the abuses of our black brothers and sisters by our policing practices and our legal system. We continue to segregate our society, in both de facto and de jure ways. We have most decidedly not overcome our heritage of hate and oppression.
In many ways, our clumsy and half-hearted attempts to honor Dr. King echo the political discourse of our moment. We still love the idea of freedom in the abstract, but hate the messy process by which it is achieved. You will undoubtably see the similarities in the response that eight Alabama clergymen had to black protests in Birmingham in April, 1963 “A Call for Unity” and the way people respond to Black Lives Matter today. And King’s pointed rebuttal in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (or, more preferably, listen to King read the letter here) remains as relevant today as it was then. Before exploring these similarities, lets take a look at the historical context of King’s arrest.
Birmingham, Alabama was considered one of the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Despite a large black population, Birmingham had no black police officers, firefighters, sales clerks , bus drivers, or bank tellers. Blacks were limited to employment in manual labor, working Birmingham’s steel mills, work as household servants or groundskeeping. The unemployment rate for blacks was significantly higher than it was for whites. The average income for blacks in the city was less than half that of whites. Racial segregation of public and commercial facilities throughout Jefferson County was legally required, covered all aspects of life, and was regularly enforced with great violence.
Birmingham’s black population began to organize to effect change. Alabama banned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1956, as an effort to prevent “outsiders” from organizing in the state. You might ask, why ban these outsiders? The answer is simple: if you can limit the issue to the local level the majority in the community can use the full force of their economic, political, and physical dominance to shut off discussion and reassert their control. This narrative of the outside agitator remains a powerful tool in the hands of those who oppose civil rights in this country (as we have seen repeatedly in Ferguson).
When the courts overturned the segregation of the city’s parks, the city responded by closing them (it turns out that those in power have a lot of ways of manipulating the system, so even when you win you still lose). The home of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the local leader of the black Christian movement for desegregation, was repeatedly bombed, as the Bethel Baptist Church, where he was pastor. These bombings wouldn’t be prosecuted until the 2000s. Law and order, right? The target of these bombings would go to jail though, as Shuttlesworth was arrested for violating the city’s segregation rules in 1962. He used this opportunity to send a petition to Mayor Art Hanes’ office asking that public facilities be desegregated– trying to use the injustice of the moment to create an opportunity for change. Hanes responded arrogantly with a letter informing Shuttlesworth that his petition had been thrown in the trash. At this point, Shuttlesworth reached out to King and the SLCL (Southern Christian Leadership Council, who Shuttlesworth had a standing relationship with) for support.
The white community of Alabama did not simply sit by and wait for black reinforcements to arrive. On April 10, 1963 the city government obtained a state circuit court injunction against the protests– an attempt to use the legal system to shutdown dissent. At this moment King asserts that unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuses of the legal process must be opposed. In other words, we have a moral and ethical responsibility in a democratic society to oppose laws like these.
For this, on Good Friday, 1963, King was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. The white Alabama clergymen wrote in defense of this practice. Their call for the “Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham” were little more than a call for the maintenance of their racial caste system. Their call for pressing for change through the courts were nothing more than a call to abandon the cause. Calls for “both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense” are calls to submit to injustice.
King, as you have seen, rejected this in the most absolute terms. His disappointment with the white moderate is the most important aspect of this letter. As King says, when law and order fail to establish justice they become “dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” These dams are what prevent change in America. They are more powerful and insidious than the monstrous acts of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. They are the true opponents of the civil rights movement.
The order that moderates call for, be it in segregated Birmingham or discriminatory Ferguson, is explicit support for the status quo. Those who call for order, in the media, politics, or in social conversation are saying they support the system as it is. They are asking those who would protest the injustice to submit to the very thing they are organized against. And they are the people most responsible for the state of racial injustice in this nation.
Reflect on Dr. King’s words today. Ask yourself if you would have stood with King against Bull Conner and the segregationists of 1960s Alabama. Most of you will say “of course– it was the just thing to do.” Then take a hard look at your position on Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and the struggle for reform in our policing and legal systems. If my friends and family are any indication, you have more “complicated” or “nuanced” views on these subjects. Apparently, knowing right and wrong is a lot harder in real-time. You can either be for justice and freedom or order and stability, but you can’t be for both.
Where do you stand?