Saturday, October 13, 2012

Op-Ed: Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Well, I wrote this Op-ed thing for my religion class. It's not super awesome, but it's basically a glorified blog post (contrary to what my professor believes). Also, I should clarify that I actually like activists today - Occupy and PETA included - I just argued the premise I was given to argue. Go figure.


Waiting in line at Starbucks the other day, I found myself behind someone wearing a shirt that proclaimed INJUSTICE ANYWHERE IS A THREAT TO JUSTICE EVERYWHERE with the caption Legalize Gay Marriage. Driving home, I passed a car whose bumper sticker had that same quotation, but this time the caption read Abortion is Murder: Reverse Roe v. Wade. I wondered how such dissimilar groups could use the same rhetoric to make their points.

In 1963, eight white Alabama clergymen sent a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. – who was jailed in Birmingham for his work on the non-violent protest campaign against the city’s government and downtown retailers – arguing that racial segregation should be fought in the courts not in the streets and accusing King of being an outsider causing unnecessary trouble. King’s response “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – from which the quote I encountered was taken – has been used to justify activist movements ever since, because many activists – fighting for issues ranging from abortion to gay rights to environmental to poverty and welfare to education to animal welfare to gender issues – consider themselves successors to the principles laid out in King’s letter.

These activists see injustices that, in their opinion, “degrade human personality” and decide to fight them. Some of them are really changing things but the majority of those activists who adhere to the principles laid out in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are failures. These are the movements like Occupy Wall Street and organizations like PETA, who put King’s words on shirts and bumper stickers, who quote him in speeches echoing out of megaphones, who set up tents in parks and hold up home-made signs, and who ultimately fail to bring about meaningful change. These activists have no right to use King’s letter to justify their political movement – none at all – because “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is an all-or-nothing deal. You can’t hand pick your favorite quotes and ignore the rest of the letter.

As a whole, the letter has a twofold mission: to explain the nonviolent movement, and to chastise moderates. King explains that his nonviolent movement is based upon the idea that unjust laws exist and must be disobeyed. If they are disobeyed without creating violence, the opportunity for dialogue is created and things can be changed. The biggest obstacle to this, King argues, is the moderate whose “lukewarm acceptance” is based on a desire to keep an easier peace without tension rather than to take on the task of building a difficult peace rooted in justice. At the core of this letter is a challenge to those eight white clergymen – and the national culture they represented – to help King achieve justice for all.

However, when the letter is taken apart, the meaning is compromised and the pieces are dangerous. Take, for example the famous quote – one that, I might add, is embraced by Occupy Wall Street – “The question is not whether we will be an extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be… Will we be an extremist for the preservation of injustice or will we be an extremist for the cause of justice?” Out of the context of the letter as a whole, Bin Laden might easily have interpreted this as a call to action. Being an extremist for the cause of justice is what Al Qaeda is all about. Yet King certainly would not have supported Al Qaeda. Or another example: “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty … is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.” Sounds like classic Thoreau, but would this not condone honor killings? If a father feels that the morally correct thing to do is to kill his own daughter and if he is willing to go to jail for it, then has King not given him the go-ahead? Yet, once again, we can be certain King would not have condoned honor killings.

King was a figure who changed the face of America. It is only logical that aspiring activists study his methods, writings, and speeches. It’s even fair to say that today’s activists have the right to pick and choose what parts of King’s work they ascribe to. In fact, this is just what King did with his own mentors – with Ghandi, Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, Thurman, Tillich, Buber, and so many others. But today’s activists cannot simply pick the parts that seem to support their cause, as they currently do. To continue to do so undermines the meaning of King’s work, as well as the integrity of their own, and is downright dangerous. Today’s activists carry the responsibility of thinking critically about their mentors’ work and creating a unique ideology on which to base their movements, if they truly strive to bring change.

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