The most relevant letter ever written

April 1963: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits in a jail cell in the town of Birmingham, Alabama. Setting pen first to the margins of a newspaper where white clergymen had taken to criticizing his organization and actions, then to scraps of paper, and finally to a notepad, King would come to write a most eloquent defense of non-violent direct action and a thunderous repudiation of white apathy. In light of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Larry Jackson, Jr., Jessie Hernandez, Renisha McBride, the Rev. Hon. Clementa Pinckney and parishioners, and Sandra Bland, as well as far too many other people of color, I cannot fail but to feel the veracity of Dr. King’s words ringing true.

As telling as it is that these acts of violence against people of color happen over and over and over again, from red states to blue states, from big cities to rural counties, and by police or private citizen, what I have found more revealing is the reaction from white America — be it politicians, the media, or members of the public. The most common theme whenever there is a direct action or protest, which is often escalated by law enforcement reaction, is why riot? Why do those people destroy their own businesses and neighborhoods? Why are they looting?

It’s as if white America has forgotten that in 1776, when our grievances were not addressed, we not only started a riot in Boston Harbor, we fought a war for independence: 

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

Freddie GrayIn the paragraph above replace Birmingham with Baltimore. Read it again. Some 50 years later, what has changed? The more I listened to white America — to strangers, to my Facebook friends, to my peers, the more I found myself ashamed. How in the face of overwhelming evidence of not just the appearance of impropriety, or possible negligence, but of outright and undeniable abuse of power that resulted in a man’s death could the narrative be reduced to well why do those uppity black people have to make such a fuss? Is it white apathy or ignorance — does it matter which?

That Saturday morning I as I pulled up my Facebook page I quickly discovered that something had happened at Netroots. I cycled through the list of folks I knew where there, and finding only allusions to what may have transpired, switched to twitter. #BlackLivesMatter organizers had protested during Town Halls by Democratic presidential would-be nominees Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders. O’Malley flubbed with some line about how all lives matter… while Sanders cycled through almost answering and then threatening to leave and reminding people he used march with Dr. King.

“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 so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Yet, it was not the candidates’ reactions that were most problematic. It was the dialogue and the arguments playing out — fittingly for Netroots, one of the largest progressive conferences in the country that focuses heavily on organizing using the Internet — on Facebook, on Twitter, and in the Blogosphere. White progressives’ reactions ranged from furious defense of their candidate of choice, to condemnation of the direct action, to condescension toward #BlackLivesMatter organizer’s tactics and what’s appropriate and why. Just shut-up and let the candidates speak. We don’t care about your problems we want to listen to a stump speech we can find countless versions of on YouTube anyway, geez. Is that too much to ask? Again, I found myself ashamed. This wasn’t Jack and Jill Doe of white America, this is supposed to be a gathering of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. How far it looked from it that day.

How in the world a gathering of progressives had the audacity to decry and shame direct action was beyond me — yet even as I write this, I think of times I have fallen short, when I have been Dr. King’s white moderate.

In truth, I was not raised to be confrontational. I was not raised to take a stand. I wasn’t even raised to be very political. But I have found myself more and more often speaking out and pushing back on dialogues that shame and condescend to activists who lest we forget are merely asking to not be killed by those who swore to protect and serve. I am not proud of the fact that I have at times merely ignored those around me, or unfriended someone I wasn’t really friends with anymore anyways, or merely unfollowed someone on Twitter. I am not proud that often instead of approaching the person who is the object of my frustration in dialogue I’ve tended to merely vent with my likeminded peers. There I have failed. There I have been the white moderate.

That is not to say that disengaging is always bad. There are times when self-care might make it necessary, and I would argue that is different than white apathy. And as someone who is horrible at self-care, I feel I should try and make a distinction there. Yet, with privilege comes the duty to use it to empower and amplify those around you. It is important for me to note that no matter how overwhelmed I feel, no matter how drained or exhausted by the structural inequality of our country, I will never feel its full weight. My privilege as a white woman — and while some would say especially in the South I would argue that narrative allows others to ignore problems of racial and other discrimination in their own communities — shields me from that burden of Otherness.

In sum, I meditate on the below. I remind myself of the necessity of being uncomfortable at times, of having those hard dialogues more often and moreover with whom they need to be had directly, and recognizing when I fall prey to being the white moderate:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, 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.

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