Fifty years ago, the white citizens of Birmingham, Alabama denied the city’s black citizens the right to work in their stores, pray in their churches, sit at lunch counters next to them, borrow books from the public library, learn at public schools and ride on public buses alongside them. Although those days may seem long gone, Wilcox County, Georgia continues to live under the enduring shadow of racism.
On April 20, 2013, the white seniors of Wilcox Country High and their guests gathered for a private whites-only prom. But for the first time in the school’s history, the black students are not settling for a separate (but equal?) prom. Instead, a group of both black and white students has organized an integrated prom to which all seniors are invited.
When asked by the progressive organization Better Georgia if he would support the integrated prom, but instead, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s spokesperson issued a statement attacking the organization: “This is a leftist front group for the state Democratic party and we’re not going to lend a hand to their silly publicity stunt.” On April 17, 2013, after the story went viral, Governor Deal finally weighed in on the subject, qualifying his condemnation of discrimination with the caveat, “I think that people understand that some of these are just local issues and private issues, and not something that the state government needs to have its finger involved in.”
Call and Response
Governor Deal’s words echo those of the eight white clergymen who criticized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the organizers of the Birmingham Campaign in April 1963. In a statement published in a Birmingham newspaper titled A Call for Unity, these fellow men of the cloth called for the black community of Birmingham, one of the most thoroughly segregated cities in the nation, to have patience and press for change through legal means rather than supporting or participating in “extreme measures” being “directed and led in part by outsiders.” Birmingham’s segregation, they implied, was a local issue.
In response, Dr. King wrote his remarkable Letter from Birmingham Jail. By candidly addressing the explicit criticisms as well as the implied attitudes of the authors of A Call for Unity, Dr. King’s letter presents an exquisite and timeless treatise on the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience. Citing references ranging from St. Augustine to Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, from the trial of Socrates to the Boston Tea Party, he elucidates the soul-distorting effects of unjust laws and provides stirring examples of how direct nonviolent actions against such laws have shaped the world.
It is by expressing his grave disappointment in the white moderates that the poignancy of the situation in Birmingham strikes deepest. From his jail cell, Dr. King decries these civic leaders’ devotion to law and order over justice, their preference for “negative peace” over conflicted progress, their paternalistic urge to “set the timetable for another man’s freedom,” and their faith in the mythical hand of time. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Social Justice is a Universal Principle
First and foremost, though, Dr. King’s letter addresses the allusion to his being an “outside agitator” in Birmingham. He pointedly reminds the reader of the severity of the dehumanizing situation in Alabama’s largest city and explains how he had been invited to Birmingham by local activists, then goes on to reject the notion that the legally sanctioned second-class status of blacks in Birmingham was a local issue. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and unity reaches outside the city limits to include the entire nation.
What the student organizers of the all-inclusive dance are up against are not law codes, but soul-distorting social codes that impede justice and equality all the same. Dr. King’s statement of purpose at end of the Letter from Birmingham Jail applies to these student activists as much as it does to the participants of sit-ins that took place 50 years ago in the same region of the country: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream.”
While Dr. King’s letter was about the legalization of racism and economic injustice in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, its condemnation of the attitudes behind those laws applies equally to Wilcox, Georgia in 2013. And in Governor Deal’s statement, we see how little has changed in the South. “Lukewarm acceptance,” Dr. King said of the moderate whites, “is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Meanwhile, the United States moved forward with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declaring segregation illegal, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a legal precedent that is presently in jeopardy, with the voter ID laws replacing poll taxes and other unevenly applied standards for gaining access to the ballot box – and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, enacted one week after Dr. King’s assassination to establish fair housing practice nationwide.
The country has moved injustice out from behind the veil of privacy and tradition in many other areas, as well, such as battered spouses and children gaining the right to government interference when faced with the worse cases of abuse and neglect in the privacy of the home. Private corporations are also subject to laws aimed at upholding justice and equality in the workplace, and many other examples of law moving beyond its mandate for order to heed the call of social justice. Thus the surprise when people around the world see vanquished warriors of a battle lost 50 years ago raising the standard of bigotry paraded as individual rights.
The Politics of Fear
The students of Wilcox County are making important strides that will better their community. Their story is one of hope and beauty rising out of a tragedy of forgotten racism in today’s rural South. More troubling is the underlying theme of the politics of race relations and its deep connection with fear of leftist ideology. The contempt that oozes from the words of Governor Deal’s spokesperson accusing Better Georgia of being a “leftist front group” is the same that Dr. King and other civil rights activists regularly encountered. We mustn’t forget that they were accused of and harassed by the FBI for being alleged communists. John Avlon wrote about this back in January 2012, issuing a warning followed by a prediction:
“But when we hear attacks once directed at Dr. King echoing in our politics today—calling opponents anti-American, communist or hell-bent on destroying the Constitution—it is worth caution and condemnation. They are likely to sound just as unhinged when historic perspective sets in.”
Unfortunately, the single comment left after that article, along with all of the other hateful accusations against Dr. King that haunt dark pages lurking around the Internet, prove that Mr. Avlon is mistaken if he believes that the unhinged attacks on Dr. King have been swatted away by that mythical hand of time.
It is the toil of progressives to counteract the ignorance of fear of and make sure that such attitudes will, indeed, someday sound unhinged.