Waiting for a Perfect Protest?

November 22, 2017

 

On September 1st of this year, the New York Times published an op-Ed signed by four Christian clergy. "Waiting for a Perfect Protest?" Is a modern-day reprise of Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter From Birmingham Jail.

 

In King's "Letter," King calls out the hypocrisy of his fellow clergy--those who criticized King's work for being 'unwise and untimely,' In it, King notes "you deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being." 

 

Our authors acknowledge their parallels to King's "Letter." They quote it at some length. Interestingly, they also point out that history has sanitized Dr. King and his work in the American popular imagination:

 

"A 1963 poll showed that 60 percent had an unfavorable feeling toward the planned March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. A year later 74 percent said that since black people had made some progress, they should stop their demonstrations.... As for Dr. King personally, the figure who current moderates most readily point to as a model, 50 percent of people polled in 1966 thought that he was hurting the civil rights movement; only 36 percent believed he was helping."

 

Our authors point out these numbers to defend the current civil rights activists--the Black Lives Matter movement, Colin Kaepernick and other kneeling football players, etc.--from the seemingly never-ending critiques we see leveled against them. They are too angry; they should be more non-violent; they shouldn't protest "at work"; they should "respect the flag."

 

"Waiting" does not call out these critiques explicitly, but the meaning seems clear. Especially as they invoke Dr. King's "Letter" explicitly. They write:

 

"We believe that current moderates sincerely want to condemn racism and to see an end to its effects. The problem is that this desire is outweighed by the comfort of their current circumstances and a perception of themselves as above some of the messy implications of fighting for liberation. This is nothing new. In fact, Dr. King's 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is as relevant today as it was then. He wrote, in part :

 

'I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor 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 can't agree with your methods of direct action.'"

 

In our conversation at BHC about the op-ed, we also read from the King's "Letter," and we followed some interesting trains of thought. We wondered about the intended audience for "Waiting," and we noted that our authors prescription for what to do (as opposed to what NOT to do), is pretty vague: "Rather than critique from afar, come out of your homes, follow those who are closest to the pain, and help us to redeem this country, and yourselves, in the process." 

 

For me, though, the insight is less about coming out of my home, and more about investigating my own discomfort when it arises. Recognizing that up to half of his contemporaries disapproved of Dr. King gave me deep pause. Would I have disapproved, had I lived then? Would I have said of him, as my contemporaries say of today's protestors: "If he would only just..."? Who is plagued by criticism and ire today that the future revere? I and my fellow travelers must see past our own comfort in our current circumstances and embrace the messy reality of a positive peace which is the presence of justice. To do so, we must learn to be comfortable with discomfort and risk, and to get curious--without defensiveness or ulterior motives--about our own reactions.

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