Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Disobedience In The Face of Injustice

Martin Luther King Jr. considered the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans as the Third American Revolution or The Negro Revolution. To King, this revolution was a culmination of 300 years of injustice that could not wait any longer to be addressed. His answer was the tool of non-violent direct action, he had to defend the use of this tactic to moderate whites and religious leaders. To do so, he had to appeal to American, religious, and Western tradition for examples of righteous disobedience that they could relate to and draw parallels to the civil rights movement. King was compelled to justify non-violent civil disobedience on political and moral reasons. He had to answer the question brought to him – “How can you call for everyone to obey the 1954 decision on the desegregation of schools, while on the other hand you advocate breaking the law during your protests?”

In his essay, The Negro Revolution, King writes about the political reasoning behind the Third American Revolution. The revolution was the result of many factors – the delay in desegregating schools after the 1954 court decision, the tokenism of the Pupil Placement Law, disappointment with the inaction of both political parties, the Cold War outcry for the protection of freedom which gave African Americans motivation to defend their own freedom, and the de-colonization and independence movements of nations in Asia and Africa. The revolution emerged in the face of over 300 years of humiliation and could draw its lineage to the 1789 French Revolution and in the 1830s England’s Chartist movement. It had been 100 years since the emancipation proclamation was signed, yet no progress was made for African Americans. In 1963, there had been numerous celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the proclamation which made African-Americans realize that they may have been physically freed, but on all other levels they were not free. King cites Lyndon B. Johnson’s quote, “Emancipation was a proclamation, but not a fact.” (Why We Can’t Wait, Page 9)

King does not credit the convergence of all these factors alone fueled the Civil Rights movement. He credits having a philosophy and method worthy of the movement –non-violent civil disobedience. Although the concept of non-violent action did not originate in the United States, it found a natural home there.

Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both practical and moral answer to the negro’s cry for justice.”(Page 12)

In his essay, The Sword That Heals, King talks about how blacks were controlled physically through the institution of slavery and then after that other systems that “kept them in their place.” African-Americans were kept in silent fear and compliance by the threat of bodily harm and false imprisonment. Those in power knew this and used it to their advantage for decades. The beauty of non-violent civil disobedience is that it turned the relationship between the powerless and those in power on its head. African-Americans were asking for imprisonment and acted knowing full well that they would be in harms way. Facing the danger that they used to cower from gave African-Americans power over their oppressors.

When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: ‘Punish me. I do not deserve it. But because I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong,’ you hardly know what to do. You feel defeated and secretly ashamed. You know this man is as good as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force.”(Page 16)

Power structures confronted with non-violent direct action became “paralyzed and confused.” (Page 25) The oppressor’s violent actions were brought out in the light of day in public where the whole world could see the injustice and their hatred. King also notes that much of the violence of the oppressor was muted as well by non-violent direct action, not only because the world was watching, but because “one side of would not resort to it, and the other was so often immobilized by confusion, uncertainty, and disunity.”(Page 26)

Imprisonment was no longer a source of shame for African-Americans, but a badge of honor. Thus, it took away some of the power their oppressors had over them. This taking away of power made African-Americans more aware of themselves as somebody. With a sense of somebodiness, they felt entitled to freedom and justice, which was the first major step toward liberation. (Page 16)

Other historical non-violent movements inspired African-Americans: the early Christians and Gandhi’s non-violent movement in India. By abandoning the “eye-for-an-eye” approach to protest, they showed that their movement was much more sophisticated. This tactic requires more will and moral strength to not hit back, as pure instinct would command. Non-violent action is more democratizing than violent rebellion. Such violence places importance on physical superiority. Non-violent action can draw in the elderly, the young, professionals, and average folk who believe in a cause. While cheers may go up when there is a call for violent revolution, more often than not the vast majority would stay home for fear that they could not possibly compete violence versus violence.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King uses his time in jail to respond to his fellow clergy who call his non-violent direct action “unwise and untimely.” They accuse King and many of the protestors from Atlanta protesting in Birmingham as “outsiders coming in.” This letter addressed their concerns about his actions in terms that they would understand from the American, Religious, and Western tradition.

King’s response to their accusation of him being an outsider causing chaos in another town was simple. He stated that Birmingham and Atlanta’s organizations often shared resources, but above all, he was in Birmingham because it was where injustice was. In his mind, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Page 65) King was fully aware of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. If one allows injustice to prevail in one place, how can one expect to be free from injustice where they stand?

In King’s estimation, African-Americans had no alternative but to turn to non-violent direct action due to the lack of good will by the white power structure in Birmingham. In his letter, he spells out four steps to non-violent action. First, collect facts to determine whether injustices exist. The second step is negotiation. The third step is Self-purification and the last is direct action.

King lists injustices found in Birmingham. Birmingham was the most segregated city in the country. The city had an ugly record of brutality and unjust treatment in the courts when it came to African-Americans. There were more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in the nation. In a way, this list of injustices invokes the U.S. Declaration of Independence list of grievances against Britain. In a political sense, the listing of grievances demonstrates the actions are not out of inarticulate rage, but thoughtful consideration of the harm done to them.

According to King, there was an attempt at negotiating with the city fathers of Birmingham. They tried to negotiate a simple matter of racial signs with the city merchants. Those promises by merchants were ultimately broken, and it became obvious that they needed to be pressured to make change. It was impossible to negotiate with someone who was not willing to make a good faith effort in return.

The third step of non-violent action is self-purification. This step involved training in what non-violence means and what it requires. Two of its main requirements are that one has to accept blows without retaliation and be able to endure an ordeal in jail. It is normal human reflex to hit back when hit. The training gives them tools to overcome their reflexes to hit back. It also requires the person to reject hatred towards their oppressors, and instead use love as a weapon. In other words, they must love and forgive the individual oppressor while fighting the system that allows those individuals to oppress. Basically, the self-purification process is the training and commitment to staying on the higher moral ground, so you can most effectively expose the excesses of your oppressor.

The forth step is non-violent direct action. Its purpose is to create a crisis or tension to motivate others to change laws and attitudes. It is out of the recognition that those in power will not voluntarily change and the realization that order without Justice is more harmful than disorder.

Peace is not the absence of tension, it is the presence of Justice.”

The stumbling block to freedom, in King’s opinion, was not the KKK, but the white moderates who want order more than they want justice what he calls “negative peace.” He recognizes that the police have sometimes responded with non-violence in encounters with the movement. King rejects this as using moral means of non-violence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. He quotes well-known author T.S. Elliot saying “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” King expresses his disappointment at church leaders who tell their flock to follow the 1954 law because it is the law of the land. He would rather hear them instruct them to follow the law because integration is morally right and the blacks are our brothers.

Direct action is the act of creating a crisis and foster tension to force the community to confront issues that it would rather not deal with or willing to negotiate over. The action dramatizes the issue in a manner that cannot be ignored. King is not afraid of tension, but makes the distinction between non-violent tension and violent tension.

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of the myths and half-truths to unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for non-violent 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.”(Pages 67-68)

King sees participants of the movement as Socratic gadflies pestering the lazy horse that is America. The movement was not out to punish, but to bring Americans into the light and experience true brotherhood. It also conjures the vision of Plato’s cave in Book 7 of the Republic. In the cave analogy, people are bound in a dark cave unable to see themselves or others, and what they know of the outside world is merely shadows created by a man-made flame. Plato would force these residents out of the cave and into the light of enlightenment. King is using tension to bring society out of the cave.

I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and non-violent pressure.”(Page 68)

In King’s cave of prejudice and racism, he knows its residents are comfortable with the ways of the cave to walk out on their own. He has no choice to put pressure on these residents to face the discomfort of change. Change isn’t voluntary.

Lamentably, it is an historic fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Neibur has reminded us; groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”(Page 68)

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”(Page 68)

Groups who have power and receive benefits from having power will not agree to hand over their advantage to those who lack power. King doesn’t discount individuals from the power group who may see the injustice of their privilege over others. It is not enough to appeal to the consciences of individuals, but it is important to address the society as a whole. Rights of a whole class of people shouldn’t hinge on the kindness of individuals but be recognized by all men.

To those who counsel King to wait for a better time to protest and to be patient, he responds by justifying what he sees as “legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” To King, it has been a 340 year wait made even more frustrating taking into account that nations in Asia and Africa are gaining their independence in relatively swift manner. The way he sees it, it is easier for those who do not have to live with injustice to say wait or presume to put a timetable on other people’s justice. In King’s own words, “Justice delayed is Justice denied.”

One of the biggest questions he answers in Letter From Birmingham Jail is, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” King insists that he isn’t for the chaos of lawlessness, but makes the careful distinction between just laws and unjust laws. In his mind, there is an obligation to obey the 1954 desegregation of schools because they are just. There is a moral duty to disobey unjust laws like segregation. King cites numerous religious philosophers and theologians to back up his argument. This would be designed to be quite persuasive to his audience of clergy. By using these voices, he is calling to their attention that non-violent civil disobedience is not merely a legal battle, but a moral battle. It is a moral battle that is consistent with laws of God and of nature. King resurrects these religious thinkers, who believed as he did, that there is a higher law that ultimately needs to be obeyed that defies relativism of current thought and beliefs.

Of unjust laws, King cites St. Augustine, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Augustine means that the entire purpose of the law is to establish justice for all. When the law falls short of that promise, it is as if there was no law at all. Augustine also defined an unjust law as “a code out of harmony with moral law.” Conversely, St. Augustine defined a just law as “a man-made code that squares with the moral law of God.” King refers to Thomas Aquinas and his definition of just and unjust laws based on the concept that there is a higher moral law.

An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”(Page 70)

What King is attempting to do with this quote is to connect the 1954 law as a law that uplifts human personality and segregation as a law that downgrades it. The 1954 law is based on the notion that African-American children deserve to learn with white children and receive the same benefits. The Brown vs. Board of Education ruling recognized the psychological benefits to children by allowing them to share the classroom with their white brothers and sisters. On the other hand, segregation was shown to treat African-American children as lesser beings by not being able to share in the same learning experience. It is not only the classroom where these children experience the sting of inferiority that laws impose on them.

…you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky…”(Page 69)

King invokes Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who stated that segregation replaces the “I-it” relationship for an “I-Thou” relationship and ends up regulating persons to the status of things. (Page 71) Buber is talking about the experience of the Holocaust and the system that the Jewish people lived under during the Nazi regime. The atrocities by the time King wrote this letter had been brought to light by various trials. The Holocaust was a devastating example of the evil of classifying human beings as sub-human and is at the heart of how the unthinkable could happen. Separation is not only wrong in pragmatic and tangible ways, but it is essentially wrong on the level of the soul.

Hence segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”(Page 71)

King quotes theologian Paul Tillich when he says that “sin is separation” (Page 71) and therefore the 1954 segregation law is just on theological grounds. King goes into detail on how he defines unjust laws, which rate disobedience by people of conscience.

An unjust law is a code that numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” (Page 71)

A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.”(Page 71)

When the majority cannot make laws that apply to one minority group, but not to all of the community. Would a white person be willing to be denied entry to a public place because of the color of their skin? The answer would be, “Certainly not!” Laws should not create second class citizens who are legally different and therefore treated differently under the law. Segregation laws do just that. On the other hand, the 1954 law establishes that all children are the same and deserve to be treated as such by the laws. King also recognizes the injustice of a group of people being denied the right to vote through conditional systems like poll taxes and literacy tests, but also denial through means of intimidation. Such barriers have kept African-American citizens from blocking and overturning unjust laws or being a part of creating just laws. Such impediments keep them from self-determination of being able to live under one law without the indignity of being seen as a lesser citizen.

When King said, “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.”(Page 71), he is referring to laws requiring parading permits controlling the use of public property. He has no problem with the law itself and grants that a city needs some sort of order when it comes to use of public streets. His problem with this particular law is that the code was used to maintain segregation and deny African-Americans their first amendment rights to peacefully assemble and protest. If the code were used as they were first intended, King would have obeyed them. When the law is used to take away their voice, then justice demands citizens to disobey.

Breaking unjust laws demands much of those who choose to participate. It’s not only the ability to take blows and to determine what are just or unjust laws, but also the willingness to do so overtly rather than covertly. King is making the distinction between a common criminal and a moral objector of unjust laws. A common criminal disobeys laws in the dark of night with the intention of escaping detection and punishment. A moral objector of unjust laws participating in non-violent civil disobedience is “One who breaks and unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with willingness to accept the penalty.” (Page 72) King did so when it came to violating the court injunction to cease activities. Such injunctions were found useful to the opposition since courts could sit on cases indefinitely, which would silence protests indefinitely. They chose to defy the court injunction openly to the press being clear that they were not advocating anarchy, but acting in response to the misuse of the judicial system to perpetuate the injustice and segregation.

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”(Page 72)

Non-violent civil disobedience isn’t lawlessness, but an expression of the highest respect for law as a tool for ensuring justice for all citizens. King’s civil disobedience is used to hold a mirror up to the society to show them what the government is doing to their fellow citizens and human beings by enforcing unjust laws. It is a declaration that cries out to the society at large what happens when certain citizens try to exercise the rights others enjoy. Clandestine breaking of laws defeats the whole point of showing the world the injustice of certain laws. In King’s mind, you must take law breaking in the spirit of creating lawful change of the laws, instead of promoting criminal behavior.

King makes the case that civil disobedience is not a new concept using various instances in history to bring the point home. By reminding his audience of historical precedents of civil disobedience, he hopes to reduce the fear factor of apparent newness of such tension in this generation. He brings up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar around circa 588 BC. King reminds his fellow clergymen that early Christians were willing to face hungry lions and excruciating pain of the chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust anti-religious laws of the Roman Empire. In facing the death penalty rather than being silenced or running away, Socrates practiced non-violent civil disobedience. King also made an appeal to patriotism in pointing to the Boston Tea Party, as a massive act of disobedience. Summoning the memory of the Boston Tea Party offers the rhetorical question as to what would have happened to the fate of the United States, if those colonists did not have the courage to openly challenge their oppressors. Defiance of tyranny is no vice, as long as it has the goal to bring about justice.

King reminds his audience, that there were times in history where the definitions of justice and injustice were turned on its head. Hitler’s commands or wishes were considered “legal” in Germany, whereas the actions of the Hungarian freedom fighters in the Soviet Bloc were considered “illegal.” In southern states, segregation was the law of the land and those who those in the Civil Rights movement were thought to be criminals. Sometimes governments are criminal and the victims of those crimes have to find the courage to correct those wrongs. In times where definitions are turned upside down, there is a higher morality that can guide citizens to turn those definitions right side up.

King’s detractors warn that although his direct actions are non-violent, they do tend to bring on violence. King sees this argument as blaming the victim for the violence he receives. He likens it to condemning a robbed man for having money, Socrates being blamed for being unjustly executed, or to Jesus being blamed for his crucification due to his devotion to the will of God. The tension isn’t coming from the protesters, but those who can be predicted to resist political and societal change. The tension comes from the police dogs, fire hoses, and imprisonment of those merely wanting their grievances to be heard. The Civil Rights movement calling out and proclaiming that their rights as citizens and human beings have been robbed like someone who has just gotten their wallet stolen. The police do not beat up a man who yells out for help after his wallet is stolen, neither should they do so when people are yelling out for help because their rights have been taken away or denied. In Kings words, ”Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.” (Page 74)

King is also characterized as an extremist. He responds by pointing out that his movement is more accurately between the complacent and those who advocate violent opposition to government. The movement resides between no action at all and actions that will result in outright bloodshed. Non-violent civil disobedience offers a sane alternative to violence without abandoning the fight for justice. Without such a religious-based movement, King feared that the streets would be rivers of blood, since frustrated African-Americans would be forced to extremist Black Nationalist movements. King reminds his audience that there are times when extremism is not an evil. Wasn’t Jesus an extremist for love? Wasn’t Paul an extremist for the gospel? Weren’t Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson extremists in their time for freedom? King like all these other “extremists” were what King called “creative extremists.” (Page 77)

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what was is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”(Page 83)

King’s Third American Revolution was not only to put flesh upon the promises of the emancipation proclamation, but also to make whole the promises stated to all citizens in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Through King’s historical references he digs up notions far older than our nation that speak to equality for all and how non-violent civil disobedience can be used to make promises of equality reality. His words stir up feelings of patriotism, religious fervor, and interconnectedness of humanity. While these feelings are stirred, he makes an excellent case for the Civil Rights movement in regards to why they cannot wait for justice and why they must break laws when they are immoral.

No comments: