I’ve found that one of the most difficult elements of teaching about the struggle for civil rights is effectively challenging the whitewashed and rosy paradigm with which students are familiar. Part of my job is to challenge the hegemonic belief that Dr. King gave a speech, and then racism was illegal and everything was groovy. While I’m obviously oversimplifying the problem here, my point is that we as a society have failed to illustrate the depth of the struggle; from the tumultuous rapids into the slightly-less tumultuous rapids. We have failed to illustrate that Black Women have led this struggle at every turn.
History informs us that protests must be disruptive. My students are often shocked or surprised by the following data from the 1960s:
Public opinion today displays some perhaps not-so-puzzling parallels. Fewer than a third of Americans said Black Lives Matter focuses on real issues of racial discrimination while 55% said the movement distracts from those issues, according to a September PBS News Hour/Marist poll. Another poll conducted that month by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that 32% of Americans had mostly positive views of the movement; 29% had mostly negative views and 39% were neutral.
The above polls indicate to me that there was/is a significant portion of white moderate Americans who, if prompted, might vociferously reply, “Of course I believe in equal rights!”. Yet still wonders aloud or privately, “Do they really have to make all this fuss about it? Surely there are better ways.” Dr. King responded to this rhetoric in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth…The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation.
Reading this section of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” leaves me with a few key takeaways: Every ball needs a push to roll down a hill, for power does not concede power without being so compelled. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the master’s tools alone will never dismantle the master’s house. What would America look like if the Founding Fathers solely employed negotiation as a tactic against the Tyrant King George? What would the suffragette movement, which earned white women the right to vote, have resulted in had suffragettes not engaged in a massive campaign of civil disobedience, including sit-ins, unauthorized protests, illegal assemblies, and chaining themselves to buildings? How could the gains of LGBTQ+ activists have begun to be actualized without the quite literal riots that Black Womxn led at Stonewall in 1969 or the mass-protests and disruptions that followed Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 in England?
Recently, the NBA and NBA players have drawn ire for speaking up for social justice. As tensions rose, players went on strike and disrupted the season, thereby compelling League officials to act. After just a few days of strikes, the NBA announced the creation of a social justice and civic engagement coalition, as well as the transformation of available NBA facilities into voter registration and polling centers. The immediate backlash to the NBA strikes reminded me, with eerie resonance, of King’s continuation:
Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.
If you claim to care about racial equality, then you ought to practice what you preach. Being “not racist” is passive. Even Arkansas County Sheriff, Todd Wright, who was recently caught on tape verbally abusing his partner and calling her a “ni**** lover” because she talked to a Black man at a grocery store, claims, “I’m a Christian man. I read my bible every day. I am by no means a racist. That video does not show the true picture of me.” It is simply not enough to be “not racist”. Racial equality requires ANTI-racism. Being anti-racist implies action. What active steps have you taken to dismantle racism? Do you think you’ve done enough to wash your hands of this ugly mess? If you take one message away from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, let it be this:
I must make an honest confession to you. I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
A protest without disruption is just a parade.
James is a multiracial High School Teacher in Washington D.C. He received a B.A. in Political Science, Education, and Africana Studies from Haverford College, and an M.S.Ed. from The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.