Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Part II

January 19, 2009

Here’s the second installment of some of my installments from the Letter.  If you haven’t read the previous post to this one, I would recommend that you do so before reading this sequel.  Martin Luther King, Jr. continues:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation. . . .  

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” . . . .

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. 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. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

This is the best description of which I am aware of the proper way to conduct a civil disobedience campaign.  The question “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” is certainly a way to weed out the half-hearted.  The four steps, “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action”, demonstrate a remarkable patience.  I have seen my share of demonstrations downtown, whether for immigration, labor demonstrations, or election measures, and have not observed such patience.  What I usually see is an expression of anger.  Even when a group has every right to a righteous anger in the name of justice, it is much more convincing, at least to me, when one is willing to “accept blows without retaliating” instead of threatening or even harming the target audience.  The Southern California grocery store lockout comes to mind, where union members stood outside of grocery stores and in some cases harassed and harmed patrons of the grocery stores that were locking out the workers because of a labor dispute. 

One other note, I appreciate MLK’s recognition of “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”, in an attempt to live in “dialogue” instead of “monologue.”  This is, in my opinion, an indictment of the “politically correct.”  Is not political correctness a “monologue”, a hatred of the “nonviolent gadflies” whose message may challenge and even correct us from social delusions?  Only an arrogant society, one that considers itself infallible, refuses to allow the dissenter to spread his message in an attempt to bring about social change. 

An excellent example of the harms of political correctness are documented in this book by an anonymous psychiatrist working in the counseling center of a major university.  The book, titled Unprotected, presents the major health issues affecting college students because their own mental health professionals are too politically correct to tell them the truths about disease, and even about their own bodies.  The “monologue” in our society is literally spreading disease. 

Being a “nonviolent gadfly” can certainly be uncomfortable and no fun, and I certainly have been anything but a “nonviolent gadfly” in my large, secular, politically correct law firm.  I am not encouraging being a jerk, nor a brainless, tactless upstart, but rather being an intelligent, calm, burr-in-the-saddle, so to speak.  Someone that will ask the well-placed question to stir up consciences and, as MLK says, “create a tension in the mind”.  It’s scary.  But needed.


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