“We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1963 in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “We would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.”
“Present our very bodies.”
That letter — written after Dr. King’s arrest to fellow clergymen who were calling on him to “wait,” to let time bring an end to segregation — could have been written this month. We remember those words as we watch Buffalo police push down a 75-year-old protester and leave him bleeding on the sidewalk, or Atlanta police pulling young people from a car and shooting them repeatedly with tasers.
In 1963, after repeated attempts to get Birmingham officials to open talks about racism in policing and every other walk of official life in the city, the demonstrators lay down in front of their abusers and allowed themselves to be kicked, stomped, bitten by dogs, blasted by fire hoses and jailed to make the point that laws enforced to humiliate and isolate black people were unjust and immoral. In doing so, Dr. King wrote, they had created a “tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood … to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
In that hope, he acknowledged the radical belief, despite so many broken promises, that the United States could and ultimately would live up to its promise. It was a patriotic hope that laid bodies in the way of Bull Connor’s troops to be stomped and kicked and blasted until a grieving nation could no longer stand it. Out of that unbearable tension came the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act that changed this country forever for the better.
But not enough.
Bull Connor is now president of the United States in the form of Donald Trump, who without shame, has called on federal troops to invade the states and stomp on the protests that have arisen of necessity from the cauldron of, not just police brutality, but, as the Rev. Al Sharpton said eulogizing George Floyd, “your knee on our neck” for the past 400 years.
Racism is this nation’s original sin. Even in their extremist and violent opposition to British oppression, their radical claim that “all men are created equal,” and the bloody protest we call the American Revolution, the “founding fathers” failed to face race — slavery — as the great national wound. It would rip the new nation asunder in a civil war that raged just 80 years later. Followed by Jim Crow, followed by decades of lynching and segregation, followed by gerrymandering and the decimation of the Voting Rights Act, followed by “I can’t breathe.”
That our black brothers and sisters cannot live without daily fear of that knee on their necks in 2020 is an indictment of white society and the history of this nation. We have created and allowed to persist a false division that continues daily and in every corner of the country to humiliate, frighten, injure and kill people just because of the color of their skin. It cannot be stomached anymore.
“There comes a time,” wrote Dr. King, “When the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.
“I hope, sirs,” he wrote to his fellow clergymen, “you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
But for the doctrine of non-violence he preached and which he called the “self purification” of the demonstrators, “by now many streets of the south would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.”
We are again at such a tipping point.
The minor violence committed by today’s protesters — some looting, some fires — has brought down on their heads battalions of troops, heavily armed and in riot gear, who have beaten and arrested peaceful protesters, fired tear gas into fleeing crowds and intimidated local officials into passivity when they should be standing up with and for the protesters.
If we don’t want these peaceful, largely non-violent, protests to rise up into a “frightening racial nightmare,” as Dr. King wrote, negotiations have to start NOW. None of this, “Get off the streets and we will talk.” If we get off the streets, complacency will shackle even the most well-meaning officials. White society has had 400 years to practice turning its back on the demands of black Americans to be free of the “knee.” We are very good at it.
We need to recognize these protests as acts of radical optimism, as were those in the 1960s. They are undertaken in the hope, in the righteous belief, that America can and must live up to its promise. Those in power need to call off the troops and recognize they have been given a remarkable opportunity, once again, to address the national wound with genuine action. We must approach the opportunity with urgency. Get the Bull Connors out of office. Stop institutional brutality toward black and brown people. Stop voter suppression. Offer equal opportunity. Involve all members of society in its direction. Understand that Black Lives Matter. Take action now.
If we don’t, our nation may not survive. It may not deserve to.
Susan Wells is a retired journalist who worked at The AJC for 30 years.
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