Why We Can’t Wait (Modern Library Nonfiction #78)

(This is the twenty-second entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.)

It was a warm day in April when Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested. It was the thirteenth and the most important arrest of his life. King, wearing denim work pants and a gray fatigue shirt, was manacled along with fifty others that afternoon, joining close to a thousand more who had bravely submitted their bodies over many weeks to make a vital point about racial inequality and the unquestionable inhumanity of segregation.

The brave people of Birmingham had tried so many times before. They had attempted peaceful negotiation with a city that had closed sixty public parks rather than uphold the federal desegregation law. They had talked with businesses that had debased black people by denying them restaurant service and asking them to walk through doors labeled COLORED. Some of these atavistic signs had been removed, only for the placards to be returned to the windows once the businesses believed that their hollow gestures had been fulfilled. And so it became necessary to push harder — peacefully, but harder. The Birmingham police unleashed attack dogs on children and doused peaceful protesters with high-pressure water hoses and seemed hell-bent on debasing and arresting the growing throngs who stood up and said, without raising a fist and always believing in hope and often singing songs, “Enough. No more.”

There were many local leaders who claimed that they stood for the righteous, but who turned against King. White leaders in Birmingham believed — not unlike pro-segregation Governor George Wallace just three months earlier — that King’s nonviolent protests against segregation would incite a torrent of violence. But the violence never came from King’s well-trained camp and had actually emerged from the savage police force upholding an unjust law. King had been very careful with his activists, asking them to sign a ten-point Commitment Card that included these two vital points:

6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

Two days before King’s arrest, Bull Connor, the racist Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety and a man so vile and heartless that he’d once egged on Klansmen to beat Freedom Riders to a pulp for fifteen minutes as the police stood adjacent and did not intervene, had issued an injunction against the protests. He raised the bail bond from $200 to $1,500 for those who were arrested. (That’s $10,000 in 2019 dollars. When you consider the lower pay and the denied economic opportunities for Birmingham blacks, you can very well imagine what a cruel and needless punishment this was for many protesters who lived paycheck to paycheck.)

And so on Good Friday, it became necessary for King, along with his invaluable fellow leaders Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, to walk directly to Birmingham Jail and sing “We Shall Overcome.” King took a very big risk in doing so. But he needed to set an example for civil disobedience. He needed to show that he was not immune to the sacrifices of this very important fight. The bondsman who provided the bail for the demonstrators told King that he was out as King pondered the nearly diminished funds for the campaign. In jail, King would not be able to use his contacts and raise the money that would keep his campaign going. Despite all this, and this is probably one of the key takeaways from this remarkable episode in political history, King was dedicated to practicing what he preached. As he put it:

How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community? What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning and then excused himself?

Many who watched this noble march, the details of which are documented in S. Jonathan Bass’s excellent book Blessed Are the Peacemakers, dressed in their Sunday best out of respect for King’s efforts. Police crept along with the marchers before Connor gave the final order. Shuttlesworth had left earlier. King, Abernathy, and their fellow protestors were soon surrounded by paddy wagons and motorcycles and a three-wheel motorcart. They dropped to their knees in peaceful prayer. The head of the patrol squeezed the back of King’s belt and escorted him into a police car. The police gripped the back of Abernathy’s shirt and steered him into a van.

King was placed in an isolation cell. Thankfully, he did not suffer physical brutality, but the atmosphere was dank enough to diminish a weaker man’s hope. As he wrote, “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below.” Jail officials refused a private meeting between King and his attorney. Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s chief of staff, sent a telegram to President Kennedy. The police did not permit King to speak to anyone for at least twenty-four hours.

As his confidantes gradually gained permission to speak to King, King became aware of a statement published by eight white clergy members in Birmingham — available here. This octet not only urged the black community to withdraw support for these demonstrations, but risibly suggested that King’s campaign was “unwise and untimely” and could be settled by the courts. They completely missed the point of what King was determined to accomplish.

King began drafting a response, scribbling around the margins of a newspaper. Abernathy asked King if the police had given him anything to write on. “No,” King replied, “I’m using toilet paper.” Within a week, he had paper and a notepad. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” contained in his incredibly inspiring book Why We Can’t Wait, is one of the most powerful statements ever written about civil rights. It nimbly argues for the need to take direct action rather than wait for injustice to be rectified. It remains an essential text for anyone who professes to champion humanity and dignity.

* * *

King’s “Letter” against the eight clergymen could just as easily apply to many “well-meaning” liberals today. He expertly fillets the white clergy for their lack of concern, pointing out that “the superficial kind of social analysis that deal with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” He points out that direct action is, in and of itself, a form of negotiation. The only way that an issue becomes lodged in the national conversation is when it becomes dramatized. King advocates a “constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth” — something that seems increasingly difficult for people on social media to understand as they block viewpoints that they vaguely disagree with and cower behind filter bubbles. He is also adamantly, and rightly, committed to not allowing anyone’s timetable to get in the way of fighting a national cancer that had then ignobly endured for 340 years. He distinguishes between the just and the unjust law, pointing out that “one has a moral responsibility to obey unjust laws.” But he is very careful and very clear about his definitions:

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

This is a cogent philosophy applicable to many ills beyond racism. This is radicalism in all of its beauty. This is precisely what made Martin Luther King one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. For me, Martin Luther King remains a true hero, a model for justice, humility, peace, moral responsibility, organizational acumen, progress, and doing what’s right. But it also made King dangerous enough for James Earl Ray, a staunch Wallace supporter, to assassinate him on April 4, 1968. (Incidentally, King’s family have supported Ray’s efforts to prove his innocence.)

* * *

Why We Can’t Wait‘s scope isn’t just limited to Birmingham. The book doesn’t hesitate to cover a vast historical trajectory that somehow stumps for action in 1963 and in 2019. It reminds us that much of what King was fighting for must remain at the forefront of today’s progressive politics, but also must involve a government that acts on behalf of the people: “There is a right and a wrong side in this conflict and the government does not belong the middle.” Unfortunately, the government has doggedly sided against human rights and against the majestic democracy of voting. While Jim Crow has thankfully been abolished, the recent battle to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, shows that systemic racism remains very much alive and that the courts for which the eight white Birmingham clergy professed such faith and fealty are stacked against African-Americans. (A 2018 Harvard study discovered that counties freed from federal oversight saw a dramatic drop in minority voter turnout.)

Much as the end of physical slavery inspired racists to conjure up segregation as a new method of diminishing African-Americans, so too do we see such cavalier and dehumanizing “innovations” in present day racism. Police shootings and hate crimes are all driven by the same repugnant violence that King devoted his life to defeating.

The economic parallels between 1963 and 2019 are also distressingly acute. In Why We Can’t Wait, King noted that there were “two and one-half times as many jobless Negros as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man.” Fifty-six years later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that African Americans are nearly twice as unemployed as whites in a flush economic time with a low unemployment rate, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that the median household income for African-Americans in 2017 was $40,258 compared to $68,145 for whites. In other words, a black family now only makes 59% of the median income earned by a white family.

If these statistics are supposed to represent “progress,” then it’s clear that we’re still making the mistake of waiting. These are appalling and unacceptable baby steps towards the very necessary racial equality that King called for. White Americans continue to ignore these statistics and the putatively liberal politicians who profess to stand for fairness continue to demonstrate how tone-deaf they are to feral wrongs that affect real lives. As Ashley Williams learned in February 2016, white Democrats continue to dismiss anyone who challenges them on their disgraceful legacy of incarcerating people of color. The protester is “rude,” “not appropriate,” or is, in a particularly loaded gerund, “trespassing.” “Maybe you can listen to what I have to say” was Hillary Clinton’s response to Williams, to which one rightfully replies in the name of moral justice, “Hillary, maybe you’re the one here who needs to listen.”

Even Kamala Harris, now running for President, has tried to paint herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” when her record reveals clear support for measures that actively harm the lives of black people. In 2015, Harris opposed a bill that demanded greater probing into police officer shootings. That same year, she refused to support body cams, only to volte-face with egregious opportunism just ten days before announcing her candidacy. In the case of George Gage, Harris held back key exculpatory evidence that might have freed a man who did not have criminal record. Gage was forced to represent himself in court and is now serving a 70-year sentence. In upholding these savage inequities, I don’t think it’s a stretch to out Kamala Harris as a disingenuous fraud. Like many Democrats who pay mere lip service to policies that uproot lives, she is not a true friend to African Americans, much less humanity. It was a hardly a surprise when Black Lives Matter’s Johnetta Elzie declared that she was “not excited” about Harris’s candidacy back in January. After rereading King and being reminded of the evils of casual complicity, I can honestly say that, as someone who lives in a neighborhood where the police dole out regular injustices to African-Americans, I’m not incredibly thrilled about Harris either.

But what we do have in this present age is the ability to mobilize and fight, to march in the streets until our nation’s gravest ills become ubiquitously publicized, something that can no longer be ignored. What we have today is the power to vote and to not settle for any candidate who refuses to heed the realities that are presently eating our nation away from the inside. If such efforts fail or the futility of protesting makes one despondent, one can still turn to King for inspiration. King sees the upside in a failure, galvanizing the reader without ever sounding like a Pollyanna. Pointing to the 1962 sit-ins in Albany, Georgia, King observes that, while restaurants remained segregated after months of protest, the activism did result in more African-Americans voting and Georgia at long last electing “the first governor [who] pledged to respect and enforce the law equally.”

It’s sometimes difficult to summon hope when the political clime presently seems so intransigent, but I was surprised to find myself incredibly optimistic and fired up after rereading Why We Can’t Wait for the first time in more than two decades. This remarkable book from a rightfully towering figure seems to have answered every argument that milquetoasts produce against radicalism. No, we can’t wait. We shouldn’t wait. We must act today.

Next Up: James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom!

2011: The Year in Broken Windows

Alexis Madrigal: “Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, who has specialized in tracking police tactical changes, found that the the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing, which was introduced to a national audience by this very magazine, has also had a major impact on protest policing. As we wrote in 1982, broken windows policing did not attempt to directly fight violent crime but rather the ‘sense that the street is disorderly, a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters.’ As Vitale would put it, the theory ‘created a kind of moral imperative for the police to restore middle class values to the city’s public spaces.’ When applied to protesters, the strategy has meant that any break with the NYPD’s behavioral preferences could be grounds for swift arrest and/or physical violence.”

* * *

In the December 2011 issue of Philadelphia Magazine, there was a list printed on Page 72 with the heading which read THINGS WE NEED TO GET RID OF. Among the items listed? The Mummers. Poet CA Conrad went onto Philadelphia Magazine‘s Facebook page and demanded that it write a letter of apology. There was no response. He kept writing. He was blocked from the site. So Conrad went to the magazine’s office in person. He was polite. He did not yell. He asked to speak with the online editor. He was told no one was in. Nobody had the courage to talk with him. Instead, the Philadelphia Magazine receptionist called the police. “The truth is that they were embarrassed by what I was saying,” wrote Canto on his blog. “And they gloated over my removal from the office on Face Book. Oh, and while I was being escorted OUT, one of the magazine’s enforcers said that I was to be arrested if I ever stepped foot inside the building again. NICE!” (I learned of this story from HTML Giant.)

* * *

“Behavioral preferences.” That’s not unlike the highly elastic term “juvenile delinquency.”

* * *

A parent in Calvert County, Maryland wrote into The Bay Net. Her six-year-old daughter Brianna had made an “inappropriate comment” at Dowell Elementary, saying she was going to kill another student. This was a joke. She was pulled from recess by a teacher and ordered to sit and wait in various administrative rooms. Brianna assured the principal that she was only joking and that she had no intent of killing her fellow students. Despite her confession, the principal then grilled Brianna about her home life. Other students were brought in. One of Brianna’s good friends was pressured to rat her out — this, after she had already confessed as to the nature of her comment. The parent asked in her letter, “How do you justify not calling the parent of a six year old and holding her in the office for 2 hrs asking her about her life at home over an innocent comment? Do not get me wrong, I know what she said was inappropriate but to all that know my daughter know that she would never intentionally hurt anyone!! How do you justify treating her this way? This is the problem, noone will or can justify this to me. I email jack smith the super of cc schools, I of course get pushed onto someone else who calls me asks me what happens and about the only response I get it ‘well as ling as you do understand what she did was wrong!’ Really? I have yet to speak to the super as I’m told he is very busy with meetings….!”

* * *

The Guardian: “James Harding, speaking at the Society of Editors conference on Monday, was talking days after Tom Watson accused James Murdoch in parliament of being the ‘first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.’ A clearly irritated Murdoch responded that he thought this was an ‘inappropriate’ comment.”

* * *

Etymology for irritated: 1530s, “stimulate to action, rouse, incite,” from L. irritatus, pp. of irritare “excite, provoke.” An earlier verb form was irrite (mid-15c.), from O.Fr. irriter. Meaning “annoy, make impatient” is from 1590s.

It took only six decades for “irritate” to have its meaning corrupted.

* * *

At a Cannes press conference on May 18, 2011, the filmmaker Lars von Trier stated, “I understand Hitler but I think he did some wrong things yes absolutely but I can see him sitting in his bunker.” These words were received with understandable umbrage. Von Trier apologized the next day, purporting that his remarks were meant in jest. “I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.” Despite this apology, he was banned from the Cannes Film Festival, declared persona non grata with the decision supported by French culture minister Frederic Mitterand. Mitterand remarked of the ban, “There is a major difference between a film that was chosen in a calm atmosphere and a director who clearly blew a fuse.” Yet in 2009, Mitterand protested Roman Polanski’s September 26 arrest in Amsterdam, “To see him thrown to the lions and put in prison because of ancient history — and as he was traveling to an event honoring him — is absolutely horrifying.” Why are terrible words uttered in 2011 more “horrifying” than terrible action in 1977? It took a day for Lars von Trier to apologize and nearly 35 years for Polanski to apologize.

* * *

In January 2011, the BBC apologized for remarks made by Stephen Fry on the comedy quiz show, QI Fry had made a quip about Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man who had survived both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fry called Yamaguchi “the unluckiest man in the world.” Japanese viewers, watching the clip on YouTube, became irate and wrote in. Japanese blogger Yuko Kato wrote: “So, in this sad case, literally a comedy of errors, the lack of knowing and understanding goes both ways. The BBC and the people involved in the QI segment (including Stephen Fry, whom I dearly love) failed to anticipate Japanese sensitivities; and if they had but still went on with the broadcast then that’s even worse. For as a Japanese (despite my unabashed love of British comedy), I was very uncomfortable with the segment, especially with the audience tittering. On the other hand (no limbs left), most of the Japanese public have absolutely no idea what British humour is about; they simply don’t know that it’s a form of expression that strives to tell things like it is, that it’s an art form that tries to illuminate all the foolishness and idiosyncracies and negativities of the world through irony.”

* * *

In February, fashion designer Kenneth Cole tweeted, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” Outrage ensued.

* * *

DJ Gardner was ranked the 64th best college basketball player in the country. He was a freshman forward standing six-foot-seven, an accomplished shooter described by a former high school coach as “an unselfish kid” who understood that it didn’t matter which player made the points. He was wooed by Mississippi State, told by the smiling men that he’d get serious time on the court and, like any hardworking kid baffled by the two other young men rotating as shooting guard, agreed to a redshirt year for the freshman season. On Twitter, he let off some steam:

These bitches tried to fuck me over.. That’s y I red shirted .. But I wish my homies a great ass season.. I don’t even know y I’m still here

He called the top brass “liars.” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury booted Gardner off the team for his tweeting, claiming his words to be “repeated action detrimental to the team.” And while Gardner’s mother, Angela, was hardly happy with the behavior of her son and the coach, she said, “I felt like there should’ve been some communication.”

* * *

On July 3, 2011, Charles Hill was shot by BART police in the Civic Center station in San Francisco. Hill was drunk. He pulled a knife and threw it at the floor. And the police shot and killed Hill. Witnesses reported that Hill had neither ran nor lunged at the two cops. The police claimed Hill was using an open liquor bottle as a weapon. BART police chief Kenton Rainey claimed he was “comfortable” with the decision of his men.

This brutal incident led many to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest Hill’s death. But on August 11, 2011, BART muzzled cell phone service at four stations, ridding the protesters of their right to coordinate a peaceful assembly. The ACLU of Northern California replied:

All over the world people are using mobile devices to organize protests against repressive regimes, and we rightly criticize governments that respond by shutting down cell service, saying it’s anti democratic and a violation of the right to free expression and assembly. Are we really willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States?

* * *

On November 21, 2011, a Kansas high school student named Emma Sullivan attended a Youth in Government program, listening to a speech by Governor Sam Brownback and ridiculing him on Twitter under the hashtag “#heblowsalot.” Brownback’s office spotted Sullivan’s tweet during “routine media monitoring” and forced Sullivan’s principal to ask Sullivan to write an apology letter. Sullivan refused, but she did say, “I think it would be interesting to have a dialogue with him. I don’t know if he would do it or not though. And I don’t know that he would listen to what I have to say.” Sullivan’s mother said that she wasn’t angry with her daughter. The story made the rounds. Brownback issued an apology.

* * *

On the afternoon of July 19, 2011, I was contacted by a detective from the Cheverly Police Department. The detective was a nice and reasonable guy. He explained to me that blogger and critic Mark Athitakis was accusing me of harassment. What was so harassing? Several comments — all under my real name, really a bunch of silly performance art that I had been leaving intermittently over the last few months, nothing intended to harm and more than a bit absurdist — one evoking a fictitious Shakespeare quote reading “let’s kill the critics” and the like. I told the detective that these comments were clearly satirical. That a comment containing the lyrics for Rebecca Black’s “Friday” could not possibly be written with violence or threats in mind. The detective agreed that he and I both had better things to do with his time. He was merely checking up on the complaint that he received.

At no time did Mark ever contact me personally to (a) clarify the beef that he has with me, (b) state that I was harassing him. He did email me on July 14th, writing, “Your behavior is abusive, disrespectful, and unacceptable. It has to stop.” I emailed him a suggestion on how to clear things up, writing, “If you want to use this email as an opportunity, then I’m all ears.” He repeated the same line in another email on July 15th. I replied, “This comment is not abusive. Here are the facts: you have no sense of humor, you are disrespectful of my thoughts and voice, and you cannot take criticism.”

That was the last direct contact I had with Athitakis. I did not visit his site again until July 19, 2011, when I was attempting to explain the situation to the detective. So Athitakis must have filed the complaint with the Cheverly Police Department after this exchange.

* * *

On October 2, 2011, then New York Times freelance journalist Natasha Lennard was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge while covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. On October 14, 2011, she spoke before a panel at Blue Stockings, expressing her opinions about organizing protests and using colorful language. A right-wing website, unable to see the distinction between reporting and opinion, posted the video with speculation, demanding “appropriate disciplinary action against Lennard” and asking her to rat out “any potential planned criminal activity by Occupy activists.”

Natasha Lennard responded with a Salon essay, “Why I quit the mainstream media”:

As the Times publicly noted, they found no problem with any of the reporting I had done for them on OWS. Indeed, a court hearing upheld that I had been on the Brooklyn Bridge as a professional journalist and as such, deserved to have the disorderly conduct charge against me dismissed. The only reason I was on the Brooklyn Bridge that day was as a reporter, gathering and relaying information on what I saw, and nothing else. However, as has become clear, if I — or any other journalist — want to express a strong opinion on a political matter, I cannot contemporaneously report for a mainstream publication.

* * *

From a New York Times opinion piece written by Rebecca MacKinnon (November 15, 2011):

Adding to the threat to free speech, recent academic research on global Internet censorship has found that in countries where heavy legal liability is imposed on companies, employees tasked with day-to-day censorship jobs have a strong incentive to play it safe and over-censor — even in the case of content whose legality might stand a good chance of holding up in a court of law. Why invite legal hassle when you can just hit “delete”?

The potential for abuse of power through digital networks — upon which we as citizens now depend for nearly everything, including our politics — is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. We live in a time of tremendous political polarization. Public trust in both government and corporations is low, and deservedly so. This is no time for politicians and industry lobbyists in Washington to be devising new Internet censorship mechanisms, adding new opportunities for abuse of corporate and government power over online speech.