Friday, February 3, 2017

How to tell someone's parroting what they read about King's Birmingham Jail letter

Some people—call them race reductionists or identitarians as you please—misuse Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail in three ways. None are supported by the text, but all are repeated countlessly in their community.

1

Some claim King was criticizing white moderates. That misses this part of the letter:
...Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security ... have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses.
Many black people today fall into that category. They fail to see that everything King did about race was grounded in class. His Dream speech was given at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was killed while supporting the Memphis Sanitation Strike. When he was killed, he was planning a Poor People's Campaign to demand an end to poverty. In support of his preferred solution, Basic Income, he said,
In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.
2

Some claim King excused violence. In Don’t criticize Black Lives Matter for provoking violence. The civil rights movement did, too, Simone Sebastian* cites the Birmingham Letter and fails to see the difference between facing violence and instigating it. In that letter, King talks repeatedly about the importance of nonviolent resistance. He talks about the preparation:
We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" and "Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?"
He talks about the purpose of nonviolence:
...we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
He never excuses violence. He only points out that it's a natural consequence of oppression:
If [the Negro's] repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, "Get rid of your discontent." But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.
3

 Some claim King rejected "tone-policing", the idea that speakers should be civil. But the letter is a model of civility. In the first paragraph, he tells his critics,
...since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth...
That sets the style for the entire letter: it is simultaneously forceful and respectful. In it, King makes his attitude clear:
...the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
An extremist for love and justice has to treat everyone with love while demanding justice.

* Simone Sebastian manages to misrepresent both King and Malcolm X, who she alludes to when she mentions "the by-any-means-necessary grit of the people who ultimately made American lives better". Malcolm said, "We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary." But he gave a context: "Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery." Because the second half of that is such strong support for self-defense, many people miss his advice on how to behave around people who have not put a hand on you.