Dr. King’s account of the 1963 Birmingham nonviolent direct action campaign against segregated businesses is not really a historical or even a narrative work. Its purpose isn’t to describe what happened. It is not addressed to people like me, sitting at a remove of fifty years from those events.
No, this book was published in 1963. It came right just a few months after the March on Washington–the point that marks the end of our conventional narratives of the civil rights struggle. In this book, King is clearly speaking to a contemporary and mostly white audience. And the bulk of the book is devoted to answering the titular question. Time and again he steps out of the narrative to rebut various criticisms from contemporaries who said that his movement was too militant, too extreme, too impractical, too disorganized, too out-of-touch with ordinary people, too disengaged from the political process.
Reading this book, it’s kind of a shock to be transported into a time before the historicization of the Civil Rights Movement. Every American of my generation (and most Americans of all the other generations) believe that Martin Luther King is a demigod and that the nonviolent campaigns undertaken as part of the Civil Rights Movement comprise some of the most beautiful and courageous events in American history.
But back in the day, people weren’t so sure. And they were right to be skeptical. America had seen a hundred years of failure on the civil rights front. Men had grown up dreaming of equal rights, they had devoted their whole lives to trying to achieve that goal, and they had died without even approaching it. Even then, America’s political system was very good at taming, co-opting, and eventually destroying mass movements.
So yeah, I don’t blame them for nay-saying. If I’d been around back then (and if I’d been a white person), then I’m sure that I’d have been one of the nay-sayers. As King describes it, there’s a certain class of white moderate that believes strongly in order, even at the expense of justice. Intellectually, they believe in equality, but they’re viscerally terrified by disorder. They’re the ones who see television footage of people being assaulted by dogs and firehoses and decide that it’s the protesters who must be at fault.
Reading a book like this is a strange experience. While I was taught to venerate the Civil Rights movement, I was also basically taught that all that shit was over. I distinctly remember thinking, sometime in the late 90s, “Wow, it’s kind of a shame that there’s really no rights left to fight for.”
Of course I knew that this country had problems, but I didn’t think that any of those problems were so severe that they invalidated the moral authority of our government. America’s problems were problems of disagreement. Some people believed in one way of doing things and some other people believed in another way of doing things and the right and proper way to sort it all out was through the political process.
But I don’t believe that anymore. When America can unilaterally decide to murder people in other countries, that is an injustice which should not be left up to political debate. The people that we kill have no say in our decision-making process. It is simply horrific that I have a vote in whether a child in Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan gets to live or die.
It is the kind of situation that calls out for direct action. And for a significant fraction of the last year, there’ve been people around six blocks away from me, in Oakland, who’ve been trying to utilize direct action in order to end these, and other, injustices. I was definitely present at the right time and place to put King’s principles into action. I had the time, money, energy, and sympathy that could have motivated me to become more involved. And I did often consider becoming more involved. But I decided not to. My non-involvement was primarily based upon self-interest. I preferred to do spend my time on things that would directly benefit me. And I also don’t really want to be arrested.
But I noticed that many of my fellow upper-class liberals justify their non-involvement differently. They often make the same sort of critiques of the Occupy Campaign that their forebears about against King’s campaign. I have no doubt that these critiques are sincere, but I wonder about the extent to which they’re also a psychological defense mechanism.
They, like me, have been taught to view the Civil Rights Movement as the apotheosis of political action in this country. But we were never taught about the costs of participation. We were never taught about the kinds of risks people took. Or rather, we were taught about those risks, but we were taught about them in such a way as to make the risks seem laughably minor. Of course if you balance a short jail sentence or losing your job or catching a beating against achieving freedom and dignity for an entire people, then the risks seem wholly justified.
But in real life, that is never the calculation. In real life, you often lose your job or waste your time or get tear-gassed or acquire a criminal record…and have nothing at all to show for it. In real life, mass movements usually fail. And in some cases, that’s because of structural weakness, but, often, it’s just because the time wasn’t right.
It’s likely that the Occupy Movement will fail. It is likely that it–as is already happening to the Tea Party–will someday be seen as some strange historical curiosity. If that happens, then we will remember our criticisms and think with relief about how we were right.
But if it grows in power and moral authority, and someday succeeds, well…we’re going to be in the same position as those white moderates whose cowardice and hypocrisy was relentlessly decried by Dr. King.