Dr. King is careful to point out that the current Civil Rights Movement (CRM) is just part of a struggle of freedom happening all over the world throughout all of history. The revolutions in Africa and Asia that created new independent governments was an extension of the same struggle. Ultimately, oppressed people all over the world were beginning to stand up for themselves and fight back against tyranny.
Within the confines of American history, the Civil Rights Movement is the third revolution. The first and second are the American Revolution and the Civil war respectively. Oppressed people in all walks of life have fought for freedom. The black people are no different, and their struggle has been continual.
Many outsiders to the Civil Rights Movement see it as a sudden happening caused by outside agitators. Their evidence is that the black people they knew did not complain about their plight. Dr. King reminds these people that blacks are heavily penalized for talking about their experience. Also, most blacks would assume whites would not care about what they go through.
The method employed by the Dr. King led branch of the CRM was non-violent direct action (NVDA). In NVDA, members would purposely violate the law in such large numbers the jails would fill. Once the jail filled the unjust law would become unenforceable. Also, the oppressor would have to use his violence in public on a large scale. His use of force would show he was unjust to the greater society and increase support for the movement in the general public.
It is important to remember, Dr. King did not see his movement as a replacement for efforts within the courts and government. It was essential to have people sympathetic to the CRM in places of power. It was also essential to support NAACP efforts to fight discrimination in court. To obtain freedom, all three methods had to be deployed.
Dr. King defines freedom as social, political, and economic redress. From a social and political aspect, the rest of America would begin to respect black people because they won their freedom in the face of the most powerful government in the world. The victory would be due to African American’s ability to strategize and have restraint in the face of violence. The victory would disprove the stereotypes and allow African Americans to move through society in a more free manner.
Economic equity would come with black people obtaining positions of power due to the collective effort. These positions of power will not be tokenism, which Dr. King deplores. He defines tokenism as letting a few blacks have power to pacify the masses and slow the CRM. Dr. King supported efforts to give black people economic stability on a mass scale through set-asides. He mentions efforts in India to support Dalits. India had a reservation system that allowed for Dalits to get preferential treatment in hiring and college admittance. So from this book, it is safe to assume he would have supported Affirmative Action.
The principle tool blacks had in their arsenal was the strong faith of black people. Black America had one of the most active religious traditions in the country. The negro spiritual was the hallmark of this tradition. Dr. King was chiefly relying on a supernatural strength to propel blacks to freedom.
The organization Dr. King headed, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was centered around ten points.
- Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus
- Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory
- Walk and Talk in the manner of love for God is love
- Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free
- Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free
- Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy
- Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world
- Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart
- Strive to be in food spiritual and bodily health
- Follow the directions of the movement and the captain of demonstration
Once the foundations of the organization were set the goal is to have many enthusiastic members that were also committed to non-violence. Meetings would include great speakers, the ability for members to explain how they have been personally harmed by Jim Crow, and singing. The singing was very important as Dr. King believed these songs held almost supernatural powers in bolstering faith.
To achieve egalitarianism in the country, the CRM had to be egalitarian itself. Within the movement, a doctor would be looked at the same as a janitor. A senator the same as a garbage worker. Leadership roles and rank would be limited. Instead, members would be encouraged to participate. By standing off to the power structure directly, they would build self-esteem. This self-esteem would supplement the supernatural forces behind their back.
The CRM had an uphill fight with obstacles placed by more than just racist Southern whites. Many black leaders felt that SCLC protest was too radical and could cause more backlash than good. Also, many whites even in the South disagreed with Jim Crow but were afraid to speak up. Apathy and fear in the general public were obstacles worse than overt racism.
Expressed in Letter from a Birmingham jail is the need for people to not stay on the sidelines. The struggle had reached a point were active participation was needed by all supporters. Minor differences in preferred tactics or philosophy can’t keep someone from full support. The 1960’s was not the time for conciliation. It was time to fight.
The methodology for the SCLC was:
- Gather information to determine if discrimination was happening
- Negotiated with those in power
- Self- purification to grow in the faith and resilience for a prolonged fight
- Direct action to create tension to force those in power to the negotiation table
It is important to remember King’s goal was negotiation from a place of power. The South as it was in the 1960’s was not willing to negotiate with black people. NVDA would be a mechanism for pressure
Many critics asked how Dr. King could condone breaking the law from an ethical standpoint. King reminds us of the goal of law and order was to establish justice. So injustice laws should not be obeyed. He also makes a distinction between unjust laws by nature such as segregation and unjust laws in practice such as parading without a permit. There is nothing naturally wrong with requiring a permit for parade, unless the permits are specifically held from Civil Rights protesters.
Black people were justified in using extreme methods to achieve freedom. Freedom is his God-given right and should be granted upon birth. Those outside the movement who say black should wait for a more convenient time put their own comfort above other’s self- determination. Also, time is neutral and its passage will not aid or hurt the movement in an of itself. It is the job of those in the movement to make the best use of time. Ultimately, tame time to their advantage.
Alternative Methods for Freedom
Dr. King did briefly discuss alternative methods to freedom done by famous black leaders.
Booker T. Washington taught black people to let down their buckets where they were. Ultimately don’t fight for change just get the best-skilled labor jobs offered now and save as much money as possible. Ultimately, this strategy is not resistance at all.
W.E.B DuBois supported the concept of the talented tenth. The idea was that if the most talented ten percent of blacks took it upon themselves to uplift the race the rest of black society could become stable. The idea of the ten percent leading the race would create a black aristocracy that may not behave any better than their white counterpart.
Marcus Garvey believed that any attempt at integration was doomed. The only hope was to relocate black America to Africa and build an independent nation. However, most black people had been rooted in America for hundreds of years and had few resources for relocation.
The recent phenomenon of the Nation of Islam (NOI) had a similar strategy as Garvey. Instead of relocating to Africa, blacks would build a separate nation in America. Most of the members were disillusioned by the lack of militancy in the CRM. The NOI was still small and few outside of large cities knew about it. The movement was fueled by resentment that would grow and become a danger to all Americans unless America embraces Civil Rights.
The final plan that was not necessary headed by any one leader called for poor blacks and whites to unite over their shared poverty. Efforts to advance this movement were always thwarted by the fact whites did not want to give up the privilege, assumed or real, of being white.