Inertness, U.S.A.

Posted earlier today at Tikkun Daily.

Part of what fascinates me about the civil rights struggles of the 1960s is that, through these upheavals, America changed. Compare that to today’s inertness: we can barely budge on gun control and the minimum wage (for examples), despite overwhelming support among Americans for change on those fronts.

Yes, there are real questions about how much progress towards racial justice we’ve made. What’s clear is that a little over a year after the May 1963 “children’s crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, we had the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And five months after the Selma to Montgomery march came the Voting Rights Act of ‘65. Which particular piece of landmark legislation has followed the Occupy Wall Street protests?

More to the point: How did change happen, half a century ago?

That question often comes up—and is answered all too readily. Many are quick to credit the vision, courage and sacrifice personified by the civil rights heroes. Others just as quickly recite with Bob Dylan that the times they were a-changin’. (Consider the reforms that washed over the Catholic Church during those years at the Second Vatican Council, which bookended Birmingham and the Civil Rights Act from 1962 to 1965.) Many still would single out the strategy of nonviolent confrontation, the purpose of which was to create an air of crisis.

One could also be impressed by the accidents of that history, arguably including the career of Martin Luther King. Earlier this year, I wrote about how, in 1954, the young MLK had a dream—to become a tweedy tenured theology professor. A year later, Rosa Parks sat on the bus and catapulted the reluctant neophyte pastor into the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was no turning back.

Add to this the accidental presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. One could argue we wouldn’t have had a Civil Rights Act in 1964 or a Voting Rights Act in 1965, without LBJ in the White House. Or those landmarks might not have been enacted until later. But it’s also true that King, Parks, and other storied figures, with their moral vision and mass movement politics, expanded the realm of the possible. That enabled Johnson to work his legislative magic.

Mysteries of Social Change

In their 2010 book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath made the simple observation: “For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.” Nonviolent direct action was one clear innovation. As King explained in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, those who engage in such resistance are not “the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” in an unjust system. In Birmingham, the explicit strategy was to bring the brutality of segregation into the open by provoking it.

In addition, during the early 1960s King and other spiritual radicals—notably his friend, Abraham Joshua Heschel—resurrected the tradition of prophetic discourse. That is, the style of denouncing social evils and chastising the powers that be, while envisioning a radically better future, as King did in his “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. Such a religious challenge to the status quo was a distant cry from the soothing spiritual happy talk of the 1950s. King and company issued their jeremiads, but they also usually managed to join prophecy with civility, social struggle with social friendship.

Those varied elements converged in Birmingham 50 years ago. In early May of 1963, thousands of children as young as six years old strode out of schoolhouses to join in the marching downtown. And, in a bracing display of cognitive dissonance, King declared: “Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.”

During the protests, King projected through his megaphone not only resoluteness, but also a longing for what he had limned on other occasions as a “beloved community.” It was a vision of solidarity between whites and blacks, rich and poor. And it was vitalized—with not just love but power, with both confrontation and a spirit of cooperation.

Whether that rare combination of moral and political sensibilities made the civil rights crusade successful is hard to say with certainty. There are too many imponderables. It should be noted too that King, depressed and guilt-ridden at the end of his abbreviated life, began to see himself as a failure, partly due to the unrealized dream of economic justice for all, both blacks and whites.

What we know is that by the end of the Birmingham campaign, there were thousands of freedom-chanting children jamming the city’s prisons. There was the thick air of crisis that King and others had prayed for, and there were the heartfelt pleas for love and reconciliation in the throes of intense agitation. All that provided what every movement for social change seems to need—the element of surprise.

I wouldn’t venture much further in trying to explain the developments of May 1963, any more than I’d pretend to unravel the mysteries of change. Perhaps these are best left as perennial questions. …read more

May 2, 1963

D-Day in Birmingham

D-Day in Birmingham

On this day 50 years ago, African American children began laying their little bodies on the line, in Birmingham, Alabama. Streaming out of schoolhouses by the thousands, they poured into downtown to join in the civil rights demonstrations led by Martin Luther King. My friend Kim Lawton has crafted the best piece of broadcast journalism I’ve seen or heard, on that extraordinary moment in America’s history.

This past weekend she filed the report for PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, and one of the people she tracked down was Freeman Hrabowski III, now president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. He was 12 years old when he came up against the arrayed forces of Bull Connor. The police chief issued the order to turn fire hoses and unleash German Shepherds on the young, nonviolent protesters.

The water came out with such tremendous pressure and, uh, it’s a very painful experience, if you’ve never been hit by a fire hose, and I thought, whoa. You know, I got knocked down and then we found ourselves crouching together and trying to find something to hold onto. People ran, people hid, people hugged buildings or whatever they could to keep the water hoses from just—just knocking them here and there.

After Lawton further described the scene with the police dogs and billy clubs, Hrabowski continued.

The police looked mean, it was frightening. We were told to keep singing these songs and so I’m singing, [he sings] Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round … keep on a-walk’n, keep on a-talk’n, march’n on to freedom’s land. And amazingly the other kids were singing and the singing elevates when you can imagine hundreds of children singing and you feel a sense of community, a sense of purpose.

And then …

There was Bull Connor, and I was so afraid, and he said, “What do you want little nigra?” And I mustered up the courage and I looked up at him and I said, “Suh,” the southern word for sir, “we want to kneel and pray for our freedom.” That’s all I said. That’s all we wanted to do. And he did pick me up … and he did spit in my face, he really—he was so angry.

For weeks, the protests against Birmingham’s segregated public facilities had been for adults only. Those acts of civil disobedience (marching without permission) had little effect, however. They were petering out by the time of the so-called “children’s crusade.” It was during April of ’63 that King also wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but that literary classic fell on deaf ears at the time, as Robert Westbrook relates in his piece about the 50th anniversary of the letter, in the April 8 Christian Century. (A half-century later, King’s letter has finally received a proper reply from a group of tardy clergymen, as Adelle Banks reported last month in Religion News Service.)

The children’s crusade turned around the Birmingham campaign—and the nation. It prompted John F. Kennedy, a month later, to go on national television and call for civil rights legislation.

In a recent post, I floated a broader question: How did it happen? How did America change so quickly (there’s room for debate about the degree of change), and on the most polarizing issue of the time, race? I’ll get back to that next week. …read more

When Liberals Feared Equality

This piece was posted earlier today at Tikkun Daily.

Late one evening in April 1963, Dick Gregory came crashing through the door of his Chicago apartment – drunk – and was informed by his wife that the president of the United States was looking for him. As Diane McWhorter related in her 2001 book, Carry Me Home, about the drive to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, the comedian returned the phone call to the White House and spoke with John F. Kennedy, who reportedly told him, “Please, don’t go to Birmingham. We’ve got it all solved. Dr. King is wrong, what he’s doing.” Gregory, a celebrity at 30 years old, replied – “Man, I will be there in the morning.”

Kennedy and his aides were hardly the only ones pleading for racial calm in that place, 50 years ago. Birmingham’s liberal white clergy and even its black newspaper had urged Martin Luther King Jr. (who died 45 years ago, on April 4) to jettison plans for a campaign of nonviolent direct action. They feared that an escalation of tactics would only make the segregationists angrier.

It’s not that the city’s men of the cloth were devoted to milder tactics. Christian pastors had looked upon civil rights not as a moral problem, which would rightly claim their attention, but as a political one, which would not; Jewish leaders, opting to sit out the battle of Birmingham, viewed segregation as a “Christian problem” between whites and Negroes, McWhorter notes. The campaign was foundering in early May when King, desperate, resorted to letting schoolchildren join in the civil disobedience (which essentially involved marching without permission).

A month later, Kennedy – who had said publicly that he was “sickened” by televised images of police dogs and fire hoses mowing down children – sent a civil rights bill to Congress. A year after that, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

That struggle for racial justice is often held up as an example of how change is possible. And its stories have helped teach many movements of nonviolent resistance, in countries ranging from the Philippines to Poland to South Africa. But how was change possible at that time?

These days the lack of progress in our politics is a given, and it is usually chalked up to fierce polarization, chiefly between Democrats and Republicans. As today, the national politics of 1963 (certainly on the domestic front) was deeply fractured along ideological lines between liberals and conservatives if not strictly between Democrats and Republicans. Still, change happened – and on the most flammable question, race.

How?

I’ll let that question float for now. And I’ll listen in on conversations this month surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign. …read more

Shades of ’63, in Birmingham, Alabama

Some recent news from Birmingham, Alabama, made me think, What is it about black kids that makes some people want to spray them violently?

NPR’s All Things Considered reported that police assigned to inner-city schools there have been pepper-spraying high school students who get a little out of hand. The prototype for the story was a 17-year-old girl who, one day last winter, was crying in the hallway because some boys had been calling her names. An officer arrived, told her to calm down and handcuffed her—not the surest way to ease distress. And then, “I got maced. My eyes was burning. My face was burning. Like, I couldn’t breathe. And then like, afterwards, I threw up,” she told NPR. This girl was pregnant at the time.

You’d think Birmingham would be especially wary of using weaponry on African American schoolchildren.

In May 1963 the city attracted world attention when thousands of Negro children flooded its downtown to march with Martin Luther King Jr., in nonviolent demonstrations for civil rights. Police attacked with clubs and dogs and—infamously—high-powered fire hoses that slammed the little ones across the pavement. But the spraying didn’t stop the marching. “In Birmingham, the Negro principal of Parker High School desperately locked the gates from the outside to preserve a semblance of order, but students trampled the chain-link fence to join the demonstrations,” Taylor Branch wrote in his magnificent trilogy America in the King Years.

In Place of Hoses

Today, students who face the Birmingham police at their schools are not exactly practicing civil disobedience. They’re usually engaging in routine misbehavior like cursing, talking too loudly, and violating dress codes by wearing, for example, baggy pants.

In other words, they’re doing the kinds of things that might normally earn a trip to the principal’s office. But at certain high schools in Birmingham, they’re being punished not just with detention but also with chemical weapons. The incidents—reportedly more than 100 of them over the past five years—have taken place primarily at a handful of city high schools with predominantly African American student populations.

President George W. Bush spoke of the “soft racism” of low expectations. He was speaking of academic standards in inner-city schools, but just how low are the expectations of those who feel that the disciplinary toolkit in those schools must include inflammatory agents?

Some students are resisting once again. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of seven Birmingham students who have been sprayed, alleging that the city’s school system and police department have “created a police state” within the schools. Black students are also speaking up in places like the Washington, D.C., area, where—according to a Washington Post analysis—they are up to five times more likely than white students to be suspended. Lawyers for the Birmingham students say they could find no other school district in the United States where students are being repeatedly punished with mace.

That they are fighting an apparent injustice would be unsurprising to King, whose birthday we observe this coming Monday. “Many children took it upon themselves to participate in demonstrations even in defiance of their parents and school officials,” writes theological ethicist Rufus Burrow in his handy volume Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians, referring to the Civil Rights era. “Such behavior only confirmed for King that children not only had a major stake in the struggle against racial injustice but also had a strong awareness of what was going on. They wanted to participate and would do so in defiance of any adults.”

In the Birmingham of 2012, the adults include African American school administrators: they’ve invited the police into the schools to help keep order. That makes this case less than black and white, morally speaking. Still, it is hard to picture unruly white students in suburban districts being routinely shot with canisters of mace. It’s hard to see this clash entirely apart from the narrative of racial inequity in America, apart from the unfinished work of what King often described as “the beloved community.” …read more

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