While a number of people, both here and other places, have written moving thoughts on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I wanted to highlight something we are aware of, but don’t think of enough: the anger that his actions generated. It was almost Newtonian – each action generated an equal and opposite reaction.
(Figure 1: Letter from J. Edgar Hoover, written anonymously, to MLK, Jr.)
(Figure 2: Hate mail sent to MLK, Jr.)
(Figure 3: Hate mail sent to MLK, Jr.)
These are just a sample. And it is important to remember the letter in Figure 1, believed to have been sent by J. Edgar Hoover, was an attempt to drive Dr. King to suicide. Dr. King’s movement, which eventually led to long overdue, long denied progress in the US wasn’t just opposed vehemently at the time, but led to immediate attempts to push it back. His efforts, and those that worked with him and supported him, and the progress they made is just one example of the fitful progress that is made in the US. Every time, from the first founding and the Articles of Confederation to the second founding and the Constitution and Bill of Rights to the post Civil War amendments to the New Deal to the Civil Rights era and the Great Society and to the achievements of the last 8 years, progress has been met with this same Newtonian response. Anger and obstruction while the progress is occurring and an immediate attempt, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to roll it back.
I know a lot of the readers and commenters here are on edge. Once again we are in unsettled times, this has begun to dawn on even a lot of people that voted for the President-elect as his inauguration approaches. And I know many are looking for or thinking about what to do. I can’t answer that, but I can say that whatever strategies arise, and there will likely be more than one, it is important to remember that they are often not what they seem. While Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence has been codified and commented on, it is important to remember that part of the reason he arrived at this strategy was concern. Concern for the African Americans that would have to survive the backlash and pushback that would be concurrent with his movement’s actions and push for progress on Civil Rights. Even as he was willing to risk his own life, part of his strategic focus and concern was for those who did not have the time, the money, the resources, and the wherewithal to engage in the active portion of his movement. He understood that no progress in the US came without a steep price and an immediate opposite reaction. As a result, his concern for their wellbeing, for what violence could be done to them in an attempt to pressure him to stop, went into his strategic calculus. The movement he led was unable to fully safeguard them, just as, at the end, it was unable to safeguard him.
As the clock ticks and MLK Day turns to the first day of a shortened work week that ends with a Presidential inauguration, remember that progress isn’t always made by the spectacular works of elites and notables, but by the slow, steady, and often routine work of everyone. And remember that whatever strategies you choose to follow as the US moves into new and uncharted territory should include Dr. King’s strategic calculus.
I’m trying to visualize the future, but everything after the next four days is gray mist…
Thank you for this.
Adam L Silverman
@Timurid: First visualize fog lamps.
Jim, Foolish Literalist
I was thinking earlier about Nixonland, how the author makes the point of how much hatred King faced right up to the end, IIRC he specifically referred to a visit to Chicago. L O’Donnell read an excerpt from King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, and noted that the prize was awarded in ’64, so MLK had already been recognized by the rest of the world, and shit like the above was what was happening here. Oy. This country.
the slow, and often boring, boring of hard boards, as some lady said last summer.
In addition to progress being much slower than we would like, we have to remember that that “Newtonian reaction”, as you well put it, can also express itself as a spring suddenly releasing after years of compression…
Progress is never guaranteed, and it’s all too easy to fall (or be dragged) back.
King was a master, and even then it took about 13 years of constant struggle.
Obama is a master who gave us 8 important years and, if we’re lucky, he is not done yet.
Adam L Silverman
@Ang: All part of the service…
I was reminded of this yesterday while watching Hidden Figures. The three women in the story didn’t really seek to be activists or social justice educators, though of course they broke a great deal of ground. They sought to do their jobs well. And I was reminded how, sometimes, just living one’s life to the extent of one’s potential is a revolutionary act.
Comment eated. Damnit.
@Adam L Silverman:
Are they on top of guard towers?
Great post, Adam. Thank you.
Adam L Silverman
@Suzanne: It was in the trash. I freed it.
Adam L Silverman
@Timurid: You can mount them wherever you like.
@Adam L Silverman: I feel like I’m going to hear a 80’s action/adventure synthesiser heavy soundtrack for the next 4 years.
Adam L Silverman
@Mike J: Have you consulted an audiologist? Or a DJ?
Yesterday I heard a woman who was on the Edmund Pettis Bridge speak here in Los Angeles, and she’s also (under her maiden name) the woman referred to in this article who testified that she had a cattle prod used on her while trying to help Black citizens register to vote.
you know, it’s hard to read those letters. In both a literal and metaphorical sense. People who could spew that kind of ignorant garbage could unselfconsiously consider themselves superior to a man like MLK Jr?
Hmmm…wonder what this reminds me of…something recent, something to do with the Presidency…
That history is not a long march of progress towards better is a hard lesson to learn. After MLK and the 60s legislation he made possible, we still have profoundly segregated neighborhoods, schools, and places of worship. Voting rights are imperiled nearly everywhere. I’m 61 and was tangentially involved in King’s movement, as were my parents. As the 60s moved into the 70s and 80s and especially after the election of Ronald Reagan it was easy to think these wars were over and the hard work was already done and there was nothing left to struggle for. It was too easy for white people my age and older to grow complacent and drown in nostalgia for a time when direct action mattered and made real change happen. It was never not that time, we just didn’t feel the sharp edge of that. It is still that time and will never not be that time. I’ll be in DC next Saturday. As for what’s next, I’m open to what the Trump Presidency will demand of me.
Major Major Major Major
@Timurid: This could of course mean something more sinister than uncertainty: no fifth day.
is Cheeto Benito in Ecuador?
Adam L Silverman
@rikyrah: Do they have a Trump property in Ecuador?
A minor — very minor — quibble, but that letter in Fig. 1 wasn’t sent by J. Edgar. It was sent by the Deputy Director of the FBI, William Sullivan. IIRC, because 1975 was a long time ago, it was not specifically approved by J. Edgar. But Hoover had approved the larger anti-King project, and Sullivan certainly wasn’t going rogue.
It also isn’t clear that the purpose was to persuade Dr. King to commit suicide. The Bureau wanted him to resign so it could install a less hostile (to it) “civil rights leader” in his place. (Yes, the FBI really thought it could do that. There’s a reason the Bureau’s internal name for its headquarters was SOG, short for Seat of Government. Anyone for hubris?)
But I don’t think anyone involved would have been horrified if he had killed himself. The Bureau took a number of actions as part of COINTELPRO that risked getting people killed. So far as the Bureau knew, no one had actually been killed. When asked whether that was luck or planning, a Bureau witness said it was luck.
And J. Edgar’s initials were all over the memos approving those actions. Hence the “very minor” part of the quibble.
Thanks for this post, Adam. It was a needed thing.
Something else I needed to see today. Thanks.
J R in WV
It would be interesting to sort census data to find towns and cities with zero or nearly so minority populations. As in White Only towns. Just to count them, locate them, be able to call them out, or alternatively demonstrate in them repeatedly, without notice, by having thousands of ordinary Americans visit, of every flavor, for a few days. Or a couple of weeks.
I have a cousin who retired to a North Carolina city which was the scene of a productive black upper class, integration in politics, which was all undone in a flash of violence, when the newspapers were burned down, black owned businesses were ALL burned down, and black people were killed and chased into the coastal swamps. The Wilmington Insurrection – 1898!
Of course, black people sill die in police custody, or at the hands of police, every day. So still a ways to go.
Spectacular post, Adam. Great reminder of many things, at the exact right time.
I was listening to John Lewis’s speech yesterday in Miami, and in part of it he talked about the conversations he had with Dr. King in the late fifties when he had applied to attend Troy State University in Alabama and they had not even responded. According to John Lewis, Dr. King told him that he would support Lewis if he fought to attend Troy and integrate it, but that he and his family needed to understand the likely cost, that his father would likely lose his farm and that the family house would be firebombed. (At this time, William Buckley was writing in the National Review that the White community in the South is “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?” His answer was crystal clear: “The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” So stealing land and firebombing houses were necessary to defend “civilization.” ). Lewis and his family decided that the price was to great at that time and he continued to attend a Fisk University in Nashville where he help found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/john-lewis-urges-more-love-not-hate-mlk-day-breakfast-n707431
The Moar You Know
Adam, thanks for posting this. Was telling my wife about these letters last night, that FBI interference in American politics had been around since day one of the organization’s founding. She was stunned. Had no idea. I think most Americans don’t.
Also, a personal note. I am 50 years old and have lived under Republican rule most of my life. I frankly don’t enjoy it. But NEVER in my life have I been scared about the results of an election before. Not Reagan, even with the nuke threats. Not W. Bush, shoved into office by the Supreme Court, knowing we’d be going to war. Crappy as those two were (Nixon and HW Bush were no prizes themselves) they had a stake in the system and ran and ruled as such. And the people who voted for them had a different vision of America than I did, but it was still a vision of America.
Not this time. We’re about to have a vision of America imposed on us, one formed by a crew of non-American folks who want America broken and helpless for their own profit.
I’m fucking scared shitless now, because this bunch coming in does not care if there’s a country left in four years, and far worse, neither do most of the people who voted for them.
Don’t have anything else to say, really, and won’t for at least the next four years. Keep your heads down and eyes on the prize, we might be able to cobble something back together out of the wreckage once all this is said and done. We kind of have to, really, so just keep that in mind.