Each year, around Martin Luther King Day, I find myself drawn back into a reading of his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Usually this reading is precipitated by wading through a swamp of Facebook comments, Reddit posts, tweets, and news articles quoting the I Have A Dream speech and oh-so-innocently asking why it is that we still talk about race when MLK's "dream" was that we would all be judged by the content of our characters. This year, as I read, I had other things in the back of my mind. The ongoing Idle No More movement, in solidarity with the indigenous people of Canada. The consistent, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming public discourse around the labour movement and union-busting legislation. The outcome (or lack thereof?) of the Occupy movement. The language of choice that now dominates contemporary white feminism.
One of the most egregious rewritings of history in the last fifty years has been the appropriation of MLK Jr.'s rhetoric for the purposes of quashing direct action, in the name of a 'colorblind' society. The words and nonviolent legacy of Dr. King are trotted out at a moment's notice, when social upheaval and the outrage of the oppressed get too in-your-face for those who exist comfortably in positions of privilege. I see this most recently in the disheartening public conversation around the actions of Native activists in Canada -- that Canadians have sympathy for the movement but not for its methods. We see the same rhetoric when union workers, both public and private, take to the picket lines or to government buildings to make their voices heard. Certainly, protest for your rights, just don't inconvenience me, we say. I agree with you, but does your protest have to be so inconvenient?
In his letter to moderate white church leaders in his community, MLK addresses just this question:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.This preference for the absence of tension over the presence of justice remains evident in all discourse around issues of social inequality. I understand that you are in pain, we say, but could you not be quite so public about it? And in the worst of the scenarios, could you not be quite so public because I have shopping to do and the violation of your rights is less important to me than getting to the mall.
The most common stance on public direct action among those who ostensibly agree but do not participate is that the raising of tensions now simply frustrates the progress that is inevitable with time. The anti-gay bigots are getting older, they will have less and less influence as time goes on. The racists are dying. The misogynists are greying. These stories of the aging out of oppression neglect the role played by direct action in the early days of contemporary social movements -- do we truly think that we would have seen an extension of civil rights to black Americans without the Freedom Riders, or the opening of society to gay and lesbian individuals without Stonewall? On the subject of time and progress, MLK had this to say:
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom...Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.Contemporary discourse also neglects the central and ongoing role of collective action in social change, instead telling stories of individual people coming to individual consciousness and leaving it at that. In my earlier piece on the language of choice and the politics of justice in feminist discourse, I noted what I felt to be an uncomfortable closeness between choice and consumption; that by equating choice with freedom, we also equate consuming with justice. I feel similarly about the consistent equation that to be legal is to be just, and that acts of civil disobedience -- of blockading, of picketing, of occupying -- are therefore unjust because they disrupt our notions of the legal. King argues that direct action is not meant to comfort but to disturb; that it is, in fact, the creation of of a disturbance in the social fabric that allows for a space to open up in which a dialogue can occur:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.As we move forward into a decade begun in the depths of a financial crisis -- with soaring economic inequality underlying a flurry of rightward tendencies in the spheres of reproductive, sexual, labour, and racial justice -- it is disappointing that the public conversation about social change leans so heavily on the words of a man who stood up for justice while displaying such an aversion for the tactics he employed. The confluence of Inauguration Day with MLK Day is a happy reminder of how far we've come; the ongoing struggle of the marginalized, the oppressed, the destitute, and the exploited should be an admonition that it is not yet enough. And when the question of appropriate methods of protest inevitably arrives, those of us who inhabit the positions of the privileged would do well to remember the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.