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

“What the Hell’s the Presidency for?”

On Monday of this week, the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, formally apologized to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, for what the police did not do in May 1961—protect Lewis and the other young Freedom Riders who arrived at the city’s Greyhound Bus station and were summarily beaten by a white mob. The day before the ceremony (the first time anyone had ever apologized to him for that particular thrashing, the congressman noted), Lewis, Vice President Joe Biden and 5,000 others joined in an annual reenactment of the 50-mile March from Selma, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. On that occasion 48 years ago, state troopers took a less passive approach and brutalized Lewis and others themselves. A few days before the reenactment, President Obama unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks that will stand permanently in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, making her the first African American women to be so honored.

One name that doesn’t figure notably in these various commemorations is that of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But it should. At least that’s my feeling after reading Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power, the latest in his magnificent series of Johnson biographies. The writer makes it clear that Johnson wasn’t just a pragmatic politician who acceded to the prophetic demands for action on civil rights. LBJ made it happen, partly out of a visceral identification with the “dispossessed of the earth,” as Caro puts it.

True, there probably wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 (not that year, anyway) if Parks had lost her nerve on the bus in Montgomery, in 1955, and given up her seat to the white passenger, or if King hadn’t led his nonviolent warriors into the streets of Birmingham in 1963. And the same goes for the Selma marchers and the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court now seems poised to undo). But it’s also true that civil rights legislation was heading nowhere in the administration of the Brothers Kennedy.

JFK and RFK meant well, once they decided to push a bill of that kind. But they didn’t fully grasp what Johnson saw, which is that powerful southern lawmakers would be able to slam the breaks on civil rights, just as they had blocked other liberal domestic reforms ever since the late 1930s. A new strategy was needed to break open the dams of progressive legislation.

Dixie Democrats, in union with sympathetic Republicans, had perfected the art of legislative hostage taking in Congress. They would stall a critical piece of legislation, such as an appropriations bill, or something else that key lawmakers absolutely wanted, until the progressive measure was withdrawn. That’s how they fought off higher minimum wages, expanded unemployment insurance, greater federal aid to education, and other initiatives beginning in the Roosevelt administration (after the early-to-mid-thirties onslaughts of New Deal legislation).

When the Kennedy administration decided to press for a civil rights bill, in June 1963, they sent it up to Capitol Hill along with other must-pass items. Johnson, as vice president, had warned against doing exactly that. He had told Kennedy and his senior aides that they needed to shepherd the other bills through the process, before trotting out civil rights.

Relating a conversation between Johnson and Kennedy confidant Ted Sorensen, Caro writes:

He tried to explain to Sorensen how the Senate works: that when the time came for the vote on cloture [halting a filibuster], you weren’t going to have some of the votes you were promised, because senators who wanted civil rights also wanted—needed, had to have—dams, contracts, public works projects for their states, and those projects required authorization by the different Senate committees involved, and nine of the sixteen committees (and almost all of the important ones) were chaired by southerners or by allies they could count on.

The vice president was ignored as usual—frozen out of the administration’s legislative efforts, partly due to the machinations of RFK, who detested him. The Kennedy people thought they understood legislative realities better than the man who had been “the Master of the Senate,” as Caro dubs him, and they proceeded to play straight into the hands of southern tacticians, who bottled up the civil rights bill. Because of that, Kennedy did not live to see progress on that front.

The general wisdom is that his assassination is what galvanized the country behind his legislative program. And, as shown in The Passage of Power (covering the years 1958-1964), Johnson did move at breakneck speed to capitalize on that momentum. At the same time, he resisted calls to send civil rights to Congress right away, together with other bills deemed necessary—calls issued by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights heroes. Johnson waited. He kept his eye on the hostage takers, realizing that the best way to thwart them was to not hand them any hostages. He let other bills (appropriations, foreign aid, etc.) pass first. Then he mounted his attack. That’s how civil rights became law in the summer of 1964.

Don’t Leave out Lyndon

Caro points out that many have questioned the sincerity of Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. The author says those people should pay closer attention to words he let out during a meeting with governors at the White House (days after the Kennedy assassination), about why they should fight inequality and injustice: “So that we can say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.”

Note the “Johnsons in Johnson City,” Texas, where he grew up. Caro analyzes:

He had lumped them all together—Mexicans, Negroes, Orientals and Johnsons—which meant that, in his own heart at least, he was one of them: one of the poor, one of the scorned, one of the dispossessed of the earth, one of the Johnsons in Johnson City. What was the description he had given on other occasions of the work he had done in his boyhood and young manhood? “Nigger work.” Had he earned a fair wage for it? “I always ordered the egg sandwich, and I always wanted the ham and egg.” Nor was it financial factors alone that accounted for his empathy for the poor, for people of color—for the identification he felt with them. Respect was involved, too—respect denied because of prejudice.

Caro continues, relating what President Johnson said as he further reflected on his experiences as a young man teaching impoverished Mexican American children near San Antonio:

He had “swore then and there that if I ever had the power to help those kids I was going to do it.” And now, he was to say, ‘I’ll let you in on a secret. I have the power.” “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Lyndon Johnson is not known as one of the prophetic personalities of the civil rights era, and shouldn’t be. It was King and others who shaped the vision (in King’s case, of a “beloved community”) and expanded the realm of the possible, which enabled the “Master of the Senate” to work his legislative magic. Still, it’s hard to picture a Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a Voting Rights Act of 1965 without LBJ as well as MLK on history’s stage at that moment. That ought to be recognized more often than it is.

This item was first posted yesterday at Tikkun Daily.

Rosa, We Hardly Knew Ye

Rosa Parks and Jeanne Theoharis, author of the first scholarly biography of the civil rights legend.

Nonviolence as a tool of social change has often been underestimated and misunderstood. The British thought Gandhi was nuts when he predicted they would simply pick up and leave India without the Indians firing a shot. Black militants sneered at Martin Luther King’s program of nonviolent direct action. And many southern whites assumed African Americans were too undisciplined to collectively turn the other cheek. Or they reasoned curiously that King’s approach was actually violent because it provoked violence in response.

During this Black History Month, new questions about nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement have bubbled up, thanks to an important new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press), by Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis. Her subject is the presumably quiet, unassuming seamstress who refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger because her feet were tired. But aside from her act of resistance, Parks was not that person, according to Theoharis.

For one thing, Parks often dismissed the fabled narrative about how she remained seated because of her tired feet. “I didn’t move, because I was tired of being pushed around,” she clarified. As Theoharis shows, black radicalism ran deeply in her family, and she came to sympathize with the Black Power movement that challenged King’s ethic of love and nonviolence.

This storied figure of nonviolent struggle always believed in what she called “self protection.” Like most blacks at the time (including King, very early in the movement), Parks and her husband owned guns. But once the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, she knew many whites were wishing it would turn violent. That would give them “an excuse to dramatically crush the protest,” Theoharis relates.

Parks took a both/and approach:

For her, collective power could be found in organized nonviolence, while self-respect, at times, required self-defense: “As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible”…. Parks saw nonviolent direct action and self-defense as interlinked, both key to achieving black rights and maintaining black dignity.

Still, she felt that nonviolent resistance during the bus boycott served as a rebuke to white citizens who regarded blacks as too feckless and “emotional” to carry out such a disciplined strategy. “Parks had delighted in the power of it,” her biographer writes.

The ultimate message about nonviolence is mixed, in the book. Both the author’s narrative and Parks’s own words years later (she died in 2005) suggest a historical revision—a sense that nonviolence was, in the end, not so effective. Here’s Parks:

Dr. King was criticized because he tried to bring about change through the nonviolent movement. It didn’t accomplish what it should have because the white establishment would not accept his philosophy of nonviolence and respond to it positively. When the resistance grew, it created a hostility and bitterness among the younger people, who worked with him in the early days, when there was some hope that change could be accomplished through his means.

This sounds just a little odd to me—as though all hope of racial justice and equality was quickly dashed. There certainly was and remains much unfinished work. But in view of the remarkable social change that took place during the King years, you have to wonder: If he wasn’t successful in effecting change, then who was?

From Montgomery to Cairo

In his Times column on the revised Rosa, Charles M. Blow treated her militancy as a stunning revelation. And it might well be, as far as her children’s-book image goes. Echoing Theoharis, he wrote on February 1, “The Rosa Parks in this book is as much Malcolm X as she is Martin Luther King Jr.”

But does this compelling biography demand a larger retelling of the role of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement? Not really.

What it does is throw light on the distinction between nonviolence as an absolute principle and nonviolence as a useful strategy. As his biographers make clear, King knew that African Americans (and people in general) were far more likely to embrace the tactic than the belief system. In King those two perspectives—the practical and the philosophical—merged. More recently they blended also in the witness of other moral and spiritual figures. These included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who convinced his fellow black South Africans that they and their country had “no future without forgiveness,” and Pope John Paul II, who inspired armless resistance in his native Poland and who spoke of war as an “adventure with no return.”

But it’s fair to say that most who have taken to the streets peacefully—in places ranging from the Philippines to Poland to Egypt—have not been true believers in the gospel of pure nonviolence. They’ve merely delighted “in the power of it.” …read more

When MLK was Old

King at Boston University

A new study published in Science magazine invites a fresh take on Bob Dylan’s refrain, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The study of 19,000 adults found that most people realize how much they’ve changed in the past ten years but seriously underestimate how different they’ll be in the future. People of all ages think they’ll stay pretty much the same—incorrectly, according to the Harvard and University of Virginia researchers. They call it the “end of history illusion.”

That’s to say, we think we’re so much older and wiser, but we’re younger than that now. There’s more growth to experience—different values, preferences, and personality traits to make our own. I don’t know if that’s necessarily comforting. Depends on how much you want to stay “just the way you are” (with apologies to Billy Joel). There were helpful summaries of the study and its methodology in Science Times and the Boston Globe, and at NPR online.

With Martin Luther King Day coming up, it’s worth asking how many of history’s great figures would have predicted how different they’d be, ten years out. I don’t think MLK, sprinting to his doctorate in theology at Boston University in 1953, had a clue.

Absorbed in Hegel, Tillich, Niebuhr, and others, King had what he saw as a clear picture of his future self. It involved standing at the front of a class in social ethics at a seminary or university, preferably a northern institution. As Stephen B. Oates recounted in his 1982 biography of King:

He hadn’t all the answers, by any means. He realized how much more he had to learn. But how he enjoyed intellectual inquiry. He would love to do this for the rest of his life, to become a scholar of personalism [the philosophical school that engaged his mind at B.U.], the Social Gospel, and Hegelian idealism, inspiring young people as his own mentors had inspired him. Yes, that would be a splendid and meaningful way to serve God and humanity.

King—on track to become a tweedy tenured theology professor—was so much older then.

A year later, he accepted what he assumed would be a sleepy temporary pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama. Newly married to Coretta, he took the job at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a relatively affluent congregation, figuring he’d get a little pastoral experience and draw a paycheck while wrapping up his doctoral dissertation.

Coretta wanted to get out of the Deep South as soon as possible. But on December 1, 1955, a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, and was escorted to the police station. Uproar ensued, and King’s fellow clergy, a fairly timid bunch, drafted the 26-year-old into the leadership of what became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was no turning back.

Postscript

Last week, the Bible that MLK used in his early ministry made news. It was announced that Barack Obama would take the oath of office with his hand on King’s Bible as well as Lincoln’s. That’ll come at the highpoint of the January 21 inauguration ceremony, which happens to fall on the King holiday.

On the inaugural platform, you won’t have to look far to find a living person whose identity changed in unexpected ways. Just keep an eye out for Barry Obama. …read more

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