Analyze and evaluate the disagreement between Martin Luther King (“Letter From a Birmingham Jail”) and Lewis Van Dusen (“Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy”) over the ethics of civil disobedience. What does each argument, in essence, say? What fundamental disagreements account for their differences of opinion? Who makes the better argument? With whom do you agree? (taken from BrianTomasik.com)
The above is a normal writing prompt found in many classrooms and law schools across the country. There may have been a similar prompt in my 7th grade English class as both of these essays were included in one of my books as a point/counter point critical thinking exercise. But comparison of these two specific essays weren’t on our class syllabus. While I don’t know the exact reason why the teacher chose to exclude them, it may have been because Lewis Van Dusen was my grandfather.
I might have gone my whole life not knowing about this Destroyer of Democracy essay, but having it stacked up in the index against the famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” made it not easily forgotten. Despite the fact that it was not assigned reading at the time, I of course read it on my own. I disagreed with it then. And I disagree with it now. I believe wholeheartedly that peaceful civil disobedience is a critical ingredient of democracy and our country’s social and moral evolution.
Before I highlight specific parts of the argument, I eagerly admit to not having any legal training. I understand that the terms legal and ethical are not synonyms. And I understand that legal logic doesn’t often result in what is just. I’m not parsing this argument as a lawyer. I’m reflecting as a socially minded, educated white woman in the 21st century, a citizen of democracy, and also as a granddaughter.
From Destroyer of Democracy:
“There are many civil rights leaders who show impatience with the process of democracy. They rely on the sit-in, boycott or mass picketing to gain speedier solutions to the problems that face every citizen. But we must realize that the legitimate pressures that won concessions in the past can easily escalate into the illegitimate power plays that might extort demands in the future. The victories of these civil rights leaders must not shake our confidence in the democratic procedures, as the pressures of demonstration are desirable only if they take place within the limits allowed by law. Civil rights gains should continue to be won by the persuasion of Congress and other legislative bodies and by the decision of courts. Any illegal entreaty for the rights of some can be an injury to the rights of others, for mass demonstrations often trigger violence.
Those who advocate taking the law into their own hands should reflect that when they are disobeying what they consider to be an immoral law, they are deciding on a possibly immoral course. Their answer is that the process for democratic relief is too slow, that only mass confrontation can bring immediate action, and that any injuries are the inevitable cost of the pursuit of justice. Their answer is, simply put, that the end justifies the means. It is this justification of any form of demonstration as a form of dissent that threatens to destroy a society built on the rule of law.
But civil disobedience, whatever the ethical rationalization, is still an assault on our democratic society, an affront to our legal order and an attack on our constitutional government. To indulge civil disobedience is to invite anarchy, and the permissive arbitrariness of anarchy is hardly less tolerable than the repressive arbitrariness of tyranny. Too often the license of liberty is followed by the loss of liberty, because into the desert of anarchy comes the man on horseback, a Mussolini or a Hitler.”
I am sure there are legal scholars today who may agree with the above reasoning (although they may be wise to not so squarely focus on Martin Luther King’s influence) and that wouldn’t make them a bigot. There was a very robust discussion in St. Louis this fall about who bore responsibility for the looting and opportunistic bad behavior that piggybacked on the demonstrations. But it’s hard for me to not see the complexity and injustice of today’s racism and racial inequality in America woven into the position above.
I see those who are in power inclined to trust the system in place. I see those who are privileged, safe, and favored calling for patience from those who are suffering and at risk. I see a blind willingness wait for lengthy legal proceedings and very politicized court battles to sort it all out after the fact, saying “in due time”. I see a lack of empathy about true injustice and a lack of understanding about the very real, very brutal, and very specific experiences of discrimination, violence, and disenfranchisement that black folks experienced at that time (and now). And I see a true fear of what may become of our country and order and status quo if we give too much leeway to the black citizens who were/are brave enough to demand equality and democratic dignity.
And, I see a veiled threat to those who walk the line as a supporter.
“To indulge civil disobedience is to invite anarchy, and the permissive arbitrariness of anarchy is hardly less tolerable than the repressive arbitrariness of tyranny.”
So, just in case you were thinking it was ok to quietly or not so quietly support the actions of these activists, you will in fact be supporting Anarchy. (Also it seems easy for those who are in power to say which situation – tyranny or anarchy – is truly worse, right?)
I still find it hard to believe that this essay was written in the months immediately following King’s assassination, but I suppose it is further confirmation that at the time he was not revered (by much of the country/establishment) as the near saint that he is today. Knowing the pivotal role that he played in the civil rights movement, I’m more than uncomfortable with the specific criticism of King’s actions and influence.
The question is, what does all this really have to do with me. How connected are we to the legacies of our ancestors? On the one hand, I’m slightly encouraged by my own familial evidence of slow, slow generational progress as far as social justice is concerned (as my own professional pursuits will never even come close to rivaling his). On the other hand, I still feel the weight of the words, decisions, actions, inactions and beliefs of my family in previous generations, and yes the guilt associated. It matters that my grandmother rejected my black cousins. It matters that my dad told racist and sexist jokes at the dinner table. It matters that we belonged to many establishments that historically discriminated against a long list of “others”. And yet, many of these facts drove me towards a desire for social justice rather than cause me to further embrace an elitist and racist attitude.
This week it became public knowledge that Ben Affleck requested that his slave-owning ancestors be left off an episode of “Finding My Roots”. Reactions to this have been mixed, some sympathetic, others extremely damning. But, I mean, who can really blame him? I don’t know many people who are jumping up and down, excited to personally link themselves to such an abhorrent institution, practice, and way of life. It would have been more admirable, in my opinion, for him to have acknowledged this ancestor (and his shame) and then contrasted it with his mother’s participation in the Freedom Summer (and his pride). But he didn’t.
But I don’t begrudge Affleck for wanting to distance himself from this ugly fact. It’s what we’d all like to do, right? “That was then, this is now. Things were different. Now, we know better.” Some of us indulge in personal accounts of victimization and brutality and injustice, but shrug off connections, theoretical and literal, to those who created those structural inequities and perpetrated those crimes. I’m a good person. I treat people fairly. We, as whites, clean the slate and give ourselves a fresh start. It’s understandable. But it’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable because it’s not right. And it’s not acceptable because in practice that same slate cleaning isn’t an option for those who have been disenfranchised and victimized for generations. Not everyone can simply turn the page.
We are neither doomed nor predetermined by our ancestors’ actions or beliefs. But denying them is destructive. Holding unsavory history at an arm’s length distance, keeping it dis-integrated from our understanding of our selves and our experiences, prevents us from real progress, recognizing our privileges, and, of course, taking responsibility.
I often wonder what kind of role I would have played had I lived during the suffrage movement or the civil rights movement. I thought about it a lot last fall as I watched demonstrations only miles away unfold via twitter from the safety and comfort of my couch. It’s nice to fantasize and believe that I would have always been “on the right side of history” and fighting for the rights of others. But my reality suggests otherwise. I likely would have been a bystander. Most people are. But that doesn’t mean I’m uninvolved.
I was raised in the North on the convenient myth that racism primarily existed in the South. We are not like them was the subtext. We would have never done that was the lie. This myth bought me many years of subversion, pretending that the conversation about race really wasn’t about me. But the whole point of this blog/conversation is that it is about me, and all of us. For that reason I think it’s really important it weave ourselves into the narratives we share with our children. I try to say “people like us” or “people who look like us” when I’m talking about discrimination. Not “some whites” or “people who lived in the South.” I say “we were wrong” about things like anti-miscegenation laws, not “they were wrong.”
A redacted history helps no one. That’s part of our legacy and burden as white folk. If you really want to see yourself for who you are and can be, you’ve gotta look at the ugly parts too. I do get to determine the path forward but I don’t get to wipe the slate clean.