Saturday, November 12, 2011

Still learning from Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement...

A few recent class lectures prompted me to write about my thoughts but I've been too busy to put them down on paper. They taunted me in my head long enough to convince me I needed to take the time and just get them out.

On April 16, 1963, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to his fellow clergy, while incarcerated in a Birmingham Alabama jail. He was jailed because of his participation in the Birmingham anti-segregation protests.  The local clergy had come out against King leading protests in their city. Dr. King was a man who could not sit idly by and watch injustice take place in cities across this great nation and when his fellow civil rights activists called upon him to help them in Birmingham he would not turn his back on them. When the Birmingham clergy denounced the demonstrations, King politely admonished them, expressing his sorrow that they chose to address the non-violent protests but never once the reason for the protests. When I read this I thought "surely if you could count on anyone to support freedom and equality, it would be the church, no?"  After all, how can one be a Christian, Jew or any person who believes in God and not support freedom and equality for all mankind?

In his letter Dr. King referred to the mindset that blacks in America were expected to wait for their freedom, that they expected too much too soon. The truth is they were expected to wait until whites were ready to accept it. That reminded me of Eisenhower's response when asked if he thought it wise to use federal intervention to enforce desegregation in southern schools. His reply was,   
"I personally believe if you try to go too far too fast in laws in this delicate field that has involved the emotions of so many millions of Americans, you are making a mistake. I believe we have got to have laws that go along with education and understanding, and I believe if you go beyond that at any one time, you cause trouble rather than benefit."
While I understand Eisenhower's statement, it just angers me. The reason blacks had to fight for equality is because the white establishment refused to acknowledge them. Why did blacks have to wait to enjoy the same God-given rights and freedoms that whites enjoyed? Every American deserves equal protection under the Constitution. Eisenhower and his administration knew that blacks were being treated unfairly, that they were being denied the same protection and rights as whites and yet he wanted them to wait. Now, I don't think that his intent was to make them wait but rather prevent serious violence  on the part of those who would not accept it. I think he knew the violence that would ensue and was hoping to avoid it by encouraging a slow and steady progress. But really what he did not understand, because he was not black, was that blacks had waited so long for whites to give them what they had no right to give, what was actually  God-given. As leader of this nation, Eisenhower had a responsibility to act, to demonstrate leadership and represent and defend the ideals of the Constitution. His administration's lack of leadership in this area made things much worse for this nation in regards to civil rights.

Now I digress to discuss one important thing historians learn early on and that is history can only be judged within the context of its time frame. While I am angry now reading statements like that of Eisenhower back in the 1950s, as a writer and historian I cannot judge it within the context of my own time. It's nearly impossible to be able to apply any logical reasoning based on current experience to events of the past.  In the context of his time, did Eisenhower do the right thing? Only someone who experienced the era firsthand can explain it.  

As to the concept of waiting until whites were ready, and the idea that blacks were trying to go "too far too fast", King wrote, 
"when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" --then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair."
It's easy to encourage people to wait when you're not among those waiting. Why should any Americans be forced to wait until the majority is ready to allow them their God-given rights--rights which are protected from government infringement in the Constitution? It's baffling that we actually had a federal government which for so long violated the Constitution of the United States by allowing states to deny Constitutionally protected rights to citizens of those states. After all, the race problem was a white problem, not a black problem. By this I mean whites caused the race problem by denying blacks the same equality and protection under the laws of this nation. Black Americans didn't cause the problem so why should they have to be the ones to sit back and wait until whites were ready?  

Mississippi Governor and Segregationist Ross Barnett participated in secret phone calls with President Kennedy about the situation in Mississippi in which Barnett personally intervened and refused to allow James Meredith to register for classes at Ole Miss. Even when James Meredith was flanked by US Marshalls, the Governor stepped in personally and refused him. The situation in Ole Miss was escalating to violence and during these calls Kennedy made it clear he did not want to send in troops, rather he wanted to find a political solution to the problem. Kennedy desperately wanted to maintain the support of Southern Democrats while at the same time he had an obligation to take a firm position in this matter and that position was to support the Constitution. Barnett told Kennedy in one of these phone calls that the people of Ole Miss just needed time to adjust and when Kennedy asked how much time Barnett would not answer. Kennedy asked if a one or two week cooling off period would be enough and Barnett still could not give an answer. The fact is that Barnett was just trying to hold the federal government off as long as possible. Barnett must have known that eventually the President would win but he did not care. He put every effort into denying Meredith and other blacks the ability to get an education in Mississippi, even going so far as to personally stand at the door of the University Registrar's office to turn Meredith away. No matter how long Barnett claimed the people would need in order to adjust, it never would have been enough time.

It makes no sense that this mindset existed but that was our country back then and I can't explain it. I can't even try to explain it because I don't understand it myself.

In his letter, King also talked of the difference between just and unjust laws and I particularly enjoyed this part of the letter because I've often pondered this very issue. Dr. King explains it in such simple terms. Basically, a just law is one that "squares with moral law or the law of God" while an unjust law does not. He explained it referencing St. Thomas Aquinas "An unjust law is a human law not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just, any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

I would say that is a reasonable way of interpreting laws that exist in society today.  And speaking of laws, we must also remind ourselves that just because something is legal does not make it right. Many injustices have been perpetrated on societies since the beginning of mankind under the guise of being legal but morally they were wrong. Since America was founded there have been laws on the books which have legally banned groups of individuals in this country from participating fully in American society. The civil rights movement was led by the black community but it was no means limited to them, it was a fight to ensure no American was denied freedom, liberty, and equal opportunity. 

Dr. King believed strongly in non-violent protests and was frustrated by the two extremes on either side of him. On one hand there were those blacks who were so frustrated with the system they had just given up and accepted their second-class status, no longer bothering to fight. On the other hand there were the extremist black nationals like the Black Panthers whose violent ideology clashed with the non-violent methods of many civil rights groups. The militant groups believed non-violent protesters were appeasing whites while non-violent protesters knew no good would come of violence as a means to gain in their struggle.  (Do you see any similarities between these groups and groups today? I certainly do!)

Another group King believed hindered the civil rights movement (even more than the KKK and similar groups) were moderate whites, those individuals who, for the sake of peace and tranquility, chose to ignore the problem. (Another example that also applies to politics today). These individuals were more concerned with keeping peace and order than achieving justice. King believed that moderates whites understood and believed in law and order as a method of establishing justice, and their support would be a great benefit to the social progress of blacks. This did not prove to be true because while many whites did come out in support of the civil rights movement, as a whole, mainstream white America stayed out of it. Who knows what might have happened if the millions of moderate whites in this nation stood up to the segregationists and the government that supported them? King described moderates whites as preferring a "negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."   

While Dr. King's letter from the Birmingham jail was written during the black civil rights movement nearly half a century ago, its message still resonates today. Every young person in this country should read this letter and discuss its meaning, both in the context of the time it was written and how it applies today. The ideology and methods apply not just to civil rights. Maybe if the younger generation can understand the message, learn from it, and teach it to others, a lot more good may actually come from it. If you've never read Dr. King's letter, you should. It is a valuable piece of American history that deserves to be passed on from one generation to the next.

The battle for civil rights in this country is an important part of our history, who we are now and where we are going. We cannot dismiss nor forget the contributions made by those who sacrificed so much for freedom and equality in this nation.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent and outstanding Jess!!!