When I’m frustrated by individuals who fail to take positive actions to improve society, I reread Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
“… time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. “
It reminds me that passive support of the status quo is nothing new, and that the flaws of human nature have bedeviled far better people than myself.
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has questioned me over the past few years about the value of protests, all the while assuring me they believe in the cause.
“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
The world has changed in so many ways since 1963, but this passage still rings true.
“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.”
The good news is that even if you’ve been sitting on the sidelines till now, you can decide to make a change, starting with your perception of those doing the hardest work.
“I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.”
If you live in New York City, and you want to take your first steps towards activism, sign up for my (free) weekly action newsletter. It doesn’t matter how complicated your schedule is, or what your physical limitations are. I find something for everyone to do.
If you’re already an activist who would like to suggest an action or event for the newsletter, email me at wendyindivisible at gmail dot com.
Non-New Yorkers looking to get started on a new path should look up their local Indivisible chapter. And if you have a specific type of work you like to do, or a particular cause is near and dear to your heart, I’m always happy to give suggestions.