In the Epistle of Martin to the Birmingham clergy, Martin Luther King writes with a sigh that
“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.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”
While recently watching the movie “Selma,” and in these many days since, I Martin’s epistle echoed in my mind. I thought too about the criticism regarding the movie’s questionable historical accuracy especially with regard to Lyndon B. Johnson.
Many were quick to come to the defense of President Johnson who inherited the work of the more liberal John F. Kennedy upon Kennedy’s death. The movie suggests that Johnson was not so willing to take political risks in the same manner as Kennedy when it came to civil rights. The movie characterizes Johnson as an advocate of the “go slow” and “wait” approach to voting rights for Blacks in the United States. Critics point to historical records and recordings in which Johnson is fully committed to removing all obstacles to Blacks in the exercise of their voting rights.
The critics may well have the proper “facts,” but the cynic in me believes that they still don’t have the whole story, the true story, with its inconvenient human emotions and biases. Johnson was a man of the South. He was known to liberally use the N-word.
While he may have been a bit more progressive than some Southerners, he was far from a Massachusetts liberal. He was no John F. Kennedy. Like Abraham Lincoln, Johnson was being forced to act against his own vested interests because he could do nothing else. He was to become something of a hero in a script with a plot not of his choosing or to his liking.
I believe that Johnson, like the clergy of Birmingham, Alabama, did question the “timeliness” of King’s efforts for voting rights legislation. I believe that Johnson wanted King to be reconciled to the “reality” of the moment. He wanted King to reconcile himself to the reality that White Southerners were simply not ready to give up their privilege and their power by allowing Blacks full, unencumbered access to the voting booth.
He wanted King to once more humble himself under the dominant cultural paradigm; I believe Johnson wanted King and the whole movement to become silent in the dialogue, thus continuing the ongoing monologue that was indeed the root of the problem then and continues to be at the root of the problem in 2015.
Of course, King was having none of this. I imagine that somewhere in the dialogue with Johnson, King indeed echoes words he wrote in his Epistle to the Birmingham clergy, “Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
In King’s letter he notes that many African nations are racing toward independence while the American Negro moves toward liberation at a glacial pace. Yet, as I consider the Black condition throughout the Diaspora, I wonder what King would say now. Will China simply be one more in a long line of oppressors bearing “gifts?”
What of the pearl dulled by a failure to keep the lights shining? How many more will be sacrificed on the altar of Boko Haram? How many more will be policed into order in Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and so forth? In the words of King, how many will be “warmly commended … for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence?'”
On the African continent, a neo-colonial elite has emerged out of the soil of independence as surrogate for the colonial oppressor. Their vision seems to be mimicry of the colonial way with the goal of power for the few. By this lack of vision, the people perish and independence is reduced to a byword. In the United States, the Black body continues to be regarded as wholly other and of lesser value. Liberation and independence are constrained by the marginalized vision of the elite dominant cultural paradigm. In other parts of the Diaspora, a similar dynamic plays out.
There is an old African proverb translated something like this – “Until the lion can have a voice in the story, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.” What seems to be at the heart of the critique of the movie “Selma” is that the story dares to assert that King and Black people (not Johnson and White people) were the heroes of their own liberation narrative. This is inherently offensive to the dominant cultural paradigm.
We of the African Diaspora must be the hero of our own stories of liberation and independence. This will not happen if we continue to strive to be reconciled to standards of the privileged who see us as deficient and less than; those who advocate “go slow” and “wait” while they reinforce their own positions of power.
As we in the United States move into African American history month, in wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, I hear the anguished voices of King, Lumumba, Nkrumah, Malcolm and so many more in the great cloud of witnesses crying in the wilderness saying, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the [people of faith]. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”