Thoughts on political coercion inspired by Martin Luther King

The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a response to a statement (called “Call for Unity”) by a group of Alabama clergymen. A large portion of the Letter addresses their calls for moderation, patience and “legal” process towards desegregation.

Perhaps the most interesting part of that is where Dr. King lays out the four step method of nonviolent resistance: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.

This is worth studying carefully, with questions in mind such as, “why do some nonviolent campaigns succeed and others fail?” The Civil Rights movement didn’t end racism, of course, but it did end de jure segregation, and raised American consciousness concerning justice and equality for oppressed groups, and not just black people. The Peace movement, on the other hand, which Dr. King began to devote himself to before he was assassinated, was an abject failure. It did not stop the Vietnam War, and more importantly, it did not create widespread consensus that we must stop making war, stop building and exporting weapons, stop using death and destruction to achieve our political objectives. If anything, the opposite has occurred. Collectively, we are the most violent nation that has ever existed. We respond thirty-fold to every injury: 3000 dead on 9/11 results in 100,000 Iraqis dead, and an ongoing campaign of dropping missiles on people who harbor our enemies, twelve years later with no sign that we will ever stop.
Perhaps the method of nonviolence doesn’t work when there are no readily organizable groups of people to negotiate for, or negotiate with. That is to say: you can organize India to seek independence from the British Empire. You can organize black people in America to seek justice from the white, women to seek justice from men, gays to seek justice from straight. But who are you negotiating for when you organize for Peace? Who are you negotiating with?

The firehoses and dogs which so disturbed the public consciousness in 1963 elicit yawns today, and it is both sad and funny that old women can participate in protests carrying signs saying “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.” A lot of our problems today (peace and sustainable economies) are problems of “everyone and no one”. Everyone wants peace, but no one acknowledges that our collective will is insanely, disproportionately violent. Everyone wishes to preserve the environment, but no one will insist that everyone must endure the sacrifices and disruptive changes necessary for that preservation. (Of course there are exceptions, individuals who are dedicated to peace and to sustainable living, but I’m talking about mass political action here, and “no one” in that context means “not enough people to force change”.)

While I don’t think marching in streets means much in America today (though it seems to mean something in Egypt) and I think American progressives need to develop some new tactics of force and coercion to make political change happen, I don’t view Dr. King and his comrades as obsolete historical relics. I keep coming back to this “Letter”, because of its structures.

One small part of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” addresses a theoretical issue with implications well beyond Birmingham and the 20th Century. It begins, more or less, when Dr. King refers to the Supreme Court case calling for an end to “separate but equal” schools (Brown v. the Board of Education) and then answers the question: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” It ends, more or less, with the observation that “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal”…”

He makes a point of mentioning Aquinas and Augustine, though he doesn’t say much about them. They are invoked to establish, as a matter of axiom and definition, that there are “just” and “unjust” laws, and to do so in a manner which the Catholic and (Conservative White) Protestant clergy he is responding to cannot evade. Likewise, he invokes the terminology of “the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (I think mostly because one of the clergy he is arguing with is a rabbi) and Paul Tillich (even though none of the clergy he is responding to was Lutheran) to define segregation as a sinful regime, or the “existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”

Impossible at it may seem today, in 1963, not all white liberal intellectuals were on board with the Civil Rights movement. The reason for that is made pretty clear in the body of the letter: demanding equality created tension and disorder and incited violence. The fact that the violence was almost entirely and exclusively by white supremacists and segregationists made no difference: Dr. King and his comrades were seen as rabble-rousers.

The prevailing view among liberals during this early part of the Cold War (which I think ends with the assassination of John F. Kennedy) was that of “pragmatism”, the philosophy of educators such as John Dewey. In their view, justice was to be achieved by reason, persuasion and education, and implemented scientifically by “experts”, by the “The Best and the Brightest” as David Halberstam’s 1972 book put it (by then, ironically).
Forcing the issue by some means of coercion was considered appropriate only as a last resort. In the case of school desegregation, especially the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the President had to call in the 101st Airborne Division to stand guard with fixed bayonets, because the “National Guard” wasn’t sufficiently trustworthy (since it is, in fact, a state militia, not “National”), the threat of force was considered acceptable because it was to enforce a court order. If a white male federal judge ordered it, then it was ok.
To that, Dr. King had the theoretical response, provided by a liberal theologian and social commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr:

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

In his 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr wrote that political groups are inevitably immoral and unjust because they represent a compromise, not between reason and expediency, but rather as an adjustment of the purely selfish interests of the powerful and privileged members of the group. The actions of society as a whole may sometimes be “moral” if the selfish interests of the majority (or a peculiarly powerful minority) happen to coincide with the just and moral thing to do, but this happens by accident at best, and not because policy is motivated by, or intended to be “moral”. Self-sacrifice is possible for individuals, but not human collectives. For leaders or representatives to sacrifice the interests of the group as a whole to some “moral” principle is treason or dereliction of duty: human beings do not elect representatives or consent to rule by leaders in order to be morally uplifted.
When privilege is involved, as it was in the case of racial segregation, Dr. King knew that some form of coercion was necessary for justice to occur. Of course he was dedicated to “nonviolent” means, but this only meant that killing people or threatening to kill people was ruled out. “Forcing” the issue by disobeying court orders and marching in the streets was still coercion of a sort, and not just mere rhetoric, persuasion or “education”. He wouldn’t have been writing this from jail (on the margins of newspapers) if he had only just stated his opinion. He stated his opinion in a manner that broke the law and invited a police response.
I think today, or with respect to issues that effect us all and don’t pit one group against another, Dr. King’s methods are obsolete. The problems we have today aren’t so much the privileges claimed by one group against another (except to the extent that they still are problems: that racism, sexism, homophobia and the like continue to exist) but rather privileges claimed by all of us against nature. What sort of force or coercion is sufficient to convince all of us to mend our ways? It may be the case that only the threat of death (by natural disaster and catastrophic collapse of the world economy) can get our attention now.


About Hazen Hammel

Lawyer, husband, father, and explorer of ancient intellectual ruins.
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