U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Patience and Change

In my new outlook of the dissertation as only the beginning of a whole new journey of understanding, I’m going to try to read much more broadly this summer (beyond my own “Derrida,” as the movie below points out, with much amusement).

I’m just rereading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. The last time I read it, I completely understood his frustration with the “Patience” and “Wait” lines he had been fed growing up. Now that I’ve written a dissertation on the generation before King, on blacks and whites who alternatively decried “Patience” and advocated it, I’m seeing the “Letter” with new eyes.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;

Isn’t it interesting that King moves from horrifying violence and poverty to a more middle class exclusion from a theme park? Perhaps this seems particularly noteworthy in the light of subsequent events, where the black middle class can now participate in most things it can afford, but violence and poverty are still realities. There is a side historiographical conversation about how King’s legacy has been tamed by “the media” (Singh and Hall are two I can think of)–an idea I intuitively agree with, but that needs more step-by-step analysis.

But what about King’s claim that “Wait” means “Never”? There are so many elements in that statement. One is youth. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, in her autobiography, remembered a similar fierceness in her early years with the YWCA in the 1920s. She got so frustrated with white board members controlling the finances of black “neighborhood” (read segregated) branches and then telling her and her cohort to be patient, to wait for change. And yet, it was the years that Arnold Hedgeman worked in the YWCA, in the New York Mayor’s first Equal Employment office, and with A. Philip Randolph to produce the March on Washington that did produce change.

There is a passion among the young to change the world right now. By placing his demands for rights and for change within waiting for 340 years, King glosses over the changes that had occurred since the constitution. He needed to–his essay was one of the most masterful and powerful pieces of persuasion in the twentieth century. I can’t imagine it not being read for many more centuries.

I’m starting to realize that one of the contributions of my dissertation is witnessing slow change by people who advocated patience (while working) and by people who criticized the patient. Perhaps that is one of the major differences between the interwar generation of black leaders and the Civil Rights Movement generation. Even as I write that, I do not want to make it seem that African Americans ever just accepted Jim Crow in the way that King tears apart. But they did live with it, while working against it. And that living and working make for fascinating study.

Did the group I study lay the foundations for the Civil Rights Movement or turn into the “complacent” that King found himself fighting?

I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.

Yes and yes. It is too simple a question. Many black leaders in the 1930s criticized the black middle class for their distance from the “masses,” but it was a self-critique. It was difficult to be both an intellectual and know for certain what motivated impoverished black people. Abram Harris, in particular, went through frequent self-analysis about his own role as an intellectual and also frequently critiqued middle class African Americans for not caring enough about economic injustice. Yet, but the time of King’s writing, he might be considered one of those who “had academic and economic security”–not because he accepted segregation, but because he was one of the few who broke through it into a position at the University of Chicago (albeit a lesser position as only in the undergraduate college.).

One of the members of my committee asked a perceptive question during my defense–did I think that change happens in academics? Or does the academic system necessarily limit and order radical thought? Can we substitute the “academic system” for “white moderate” in the following King quote?

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.

I think my dissertation offers a complicated answer–yes, oftentimes academics chops off the most demanding calls for the ends of injustice. At the same time, the academy can also support those demands through careful thought and teaching positions. It is a difficult position–one that is frequently discussed among theorists and analysts of the current state of Black Studies.

(This is also a driving personal question for me–are we all extremists? “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” (King). Or is moderation possible? Post 9-11, it seems to me that moderation was hailed and extremism deplored by a certain liberal and vocal subset of society. Is that the more moral choice? If extremism is the better path, is it possible as an academic? Can moderates be moral standard bearers, or are they necessarily moral cowards? Do any of these questions even make sense outside of the particular moral question being asked?)

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Such a thoughtful and interesting post, Lauren!

    It immediately made me think of two comparisons.

    First, if we are going to hear the voice of youth in King’s impatience in the Letter, how interesting the peroration of his famous Memphis speech becomes:

    And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

    Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything.
    I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

    The most striking thing about that is still its bold invocation of Moses and its eerily prophetic quality. But it’s also interesting to compare this King, just half a decade later, from the King that sat in that Birmingham jail. I don’t think he’d have disagreed with anything he had written in the Letter…but the note of impatience has been replaced with something else.

    The second comparison is less obvious…but more striking. When I taught the Letter this spring, the words you quote in your final paragraph about “extremism” leapt out at me….and I thought of a famous speech from a little over a year later:

    I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

    And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

    I’m less sure what to do with this comparison…except, perhaps, to note that if Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barry Goldwater are using such similar tropes, perhaps we are really seeing the beginnings of the collapse of the Cold War liberal consensus (if there ever was such a thing).

  2. Thanks to Lauren’s great post, and to Ben’s response, I have an idea for my class today. It’s a summer survey, post-1945 US. We’ll be talking about the conservative movement and the Goldwater campaign. I am going to have them analyze Goldwater’s famous vice/virtue speech, set in relief by MLK’s speech.

  3. That Memphis speech always gives me the chills–he really did know what was coming and had made his peace with it.

    Andrew–how did the class go? What did you and your students think of those two speeches?

    I still wonder whether it is worthwhile to discuss the merits and problems with moderation and extremism outside the specific moral issue?

  4. Lauren: the class went pretty well. I set them up. After lecturing about 1950s and 1960s conservatism, we listened to the Goldwater speech, and I talked about the John Birch Society and how the mention of “extremism” was a veiled reference to it. Then I asked them to discuss whether extremism was inherently bad. A few of them said, no, not inherently, and pointed to the abolitionists as a case in point (although some said John Brown took it too far, which made it clear that they’ve yet to be exposed to some of the recent historiography that rehabilitates Brown.) Most of the students, though, said extremism is a bad thing, and seemed to think it always ended in violence and even, perhaps, totalitarianism. Hitler was brought up by more than one student. Then I had them read the MLK speech. And, predictably, many changed their minds. Too easy.

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