So Yesterday was the 50th Anniversary of Letter From a Birmingham Jail

[Content note: discussion of racism and violence]

Yesterday, NPR ran a nice story of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
King traveled to Alabama in April 1963 to attack the culture of racism in the South and the Jim Crow laws that mandated separate facilities for blacks and whites....With racial tension high, King began nonviolent protests before Easter, but the campaign was struggling. King wasn't getting enough participation from the black community. So on Good Friday, he and several other organizers decided to get arrested. Police took King to the jail and held him in isolation.
While King was in the Birmingham City Jail, he read an open letter from eight moderate white clergymen which, while claiming to support integration, urged patience and criticized protestors' disregard for unjust laws.

King wrote an open letter in response, which you can (and should) read in its entirety here.

Letter has always resonated with me for all the reasons that King's speech to the March on Washington doesn't.

Don't get me wrong-- King's "I Have a Dream" is masterful, and deserves its place among the most famous speeches in America. However, I've always felt that part of the widespread appeal of "Dream" is the way its eloquent plea for justice in the face of injustice plays into privileged narratives of civil rights.

King dreamed of equality for his children, just as good schoolchildren were asking for justice in the face of bad people with vicious dogs and firehouses. The fight against racial segregation included a lot of moments where the worst of humanity attacked the best of humanity. The firebombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The firing bombing of Freedom Riders' bus. Selma.

It's pretty easy to imagine one would be on the right side of history when the only other side is aligned with the Klan.

My problem with the ally narrative that emphasizes "I Have a Dream" is that it doesn't address the harm of apathy, indifference, or eight supposed allies begging for patience while privileged people prepared for the inconvenience of justice. I suppose this is one of the legacies of non-violent resistance to segregation-- it highlighted the monstrous violence of Jim Crow, leaving less and less cover for well-wishers on the sidelines.

Martin Luther King (and a hell of a lot of other people, but I'll leave that discussion for another day) spent most of the sixties tirelessly working to put enough pressure on white progressive to do what now seems like it was inevitable. Behind the scenes, there were shitloads of horrifyingly pragmatic discussions between the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, civil rights activists, and well, bigots.

And that's why I love Letter so damned much. It wasn't the inspiring parable that King wanted to tell, but rather the blunt rebuttal King need to make to would-be allies who insisted that the oppressed seek justice on privileged people's terms. A lot of Letter is specific to the church and to the effort to desegregate the US, but the sentiments King expressed are timeless.

I have so many objections to appropriative bullshit like this, but to the extent that we use the 1960's to frame the continuing struggle for social justice, let us not forget Letter and the lessons it holds for all of us.

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