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Italo Calvino on Racial Justice: The Beloved Italian Writer’s Stirring Account of the Early Civil Rights Movement and His Encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.

“What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.”

Italo Calvino on Racial Justice: The Beloved Italian Writer’s Stirring Account of the Early Civil Rights Movement and His Encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1959, the Ford Foundation invited a small international group of up-and-coming creative writers to visit America on a six-month scholarship — a Herculean feat under an administration that made it as close to impossible as possible for foreigners suspected of communist views, which included most foreigners, to enter the United States. Among them were an English poet, a French novelist, a Spanish playwright, a Flemish-Belgian poet, an Israeli essayist and scholar of politics and religion, and the young Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985), who had just published his fifth book of fiction. (The great German writer and graphic artist Günter Grass was also invited, but failed the medical exam mandated by U.S. immigration — “the barbaric law that you have to have sound lungs to enter America,” as Calvino put it — and had to relinquish his scholarship. Of those invited, Grass would go on to be the only writer to win the Nobel Prize.)

Calvino recorded the journey in a series of exquisite diary entires and letters, beginning with his time on the ocean liner (“The only thing that you can glean from it is a definition of boredom as being somehow out of phase with history, a feeling of being cut off but with the consciousness that everything else is still going on.”), which landed him in New York, “the most spectacular sight that anyone can see on this earth.” He spent four of the six months there, and traveled around the country for the remaining two. (“I stopped at Savannah, Georgia, to sleep and have a look at it, attracted only by its beautiful name and by some historical, literary or musical memory, but no one said I should go there, no one in any State of the United States. AND IT IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CITY IN THE UNITED STATES. Absolutely, there is nothing to compare with it.”)

Calvino collected his impressions under the working title An Optimist in America, but ultimately decided not to publish the book. “It hadn’t turned out badly,” he wrote to a friend, “but for me to go down the road taken by travel writers was opting for an easy way out.” And yet when his wife found these American diaries and letters among his papers after his death, she instantly recognized that they offered a singular glimpse of Calvino as a writer — “the most spontaneous and direct one we have,” she writes in the preface to the posthumously published Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings (public library).

But they also offer something else — a singular glimpse of America itself, revealed in a mirror held up by an impartial guest with no agenda of his own, animated only by the benevolent curiosity of an itinerant idealist. What Calvino’s mirror reveals is both timeless and staggeringly timely, nowhere more so than in his writings about America’s pathology of racial injustice and the difficult, necessary awakening of public consciousness that he witnessed in the early civil rights movement, replete with its hard-won potential for healing a ruptured nation.

Boy skating in the streets of Montgomery, Alabama (Photograph: James Peppler / Alabama Department of Archives & History)

Through that peculiar convergence of chance and choice that shapes our lives, Calvino found himself in Montgomery, Alabama on the fateful day of the student protests that catalyzed national attention for the civil rights movement. He had read about and come to admire Martin Luther King, Jr. — a “young black political activist [with] no particular social or political programme except equal rights for blacks” — and, being a politically wakeful young man with strong values of social justice himself, set out to meet him. So he traveled to Montgomery, but didn’t anticipate that his arrival would coincide with the landmark march whose ethos of nonviolence contoured the harrowing racial violence that dogged the American South and haunted the American spirit.

In a diary entry from March 6, 1960, Calvino writes:

This is a day that I will never forget as long as I live. I have seen what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of a society’s fundamental rules. I was present at one of the first episodes of mass struggle by the Southern blacks: and it ended in defeat. I don’t know if you are aware that after decades of total immobility black protests began right here, in the worst segregationist State in the country: some were even successful, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister, advocate of non-violent protest. That is why I came here to Montgomery, the day before yesterday, but I did not expect to find myself right in the middle of these crucial days of struggle.

The scene today is Alabama’s Capitol (which was the first Confederate Capitol, in the early months of the secession, before the capital moved to Richmond), a white building like the Washington Capitol, on a wide, climbing street, Dexter Street. The black students (from the black university) had declared that they would go to the Capitol steps for a peaceful protest demonstration against the expulsion of nine of them from the university, who last week had tried to sit down in the whites’ coffee shop in Court Hall, the State court building. At half-past one there was a meeting of the students at the Baptist church right beside the Capitol (the church where King had been minister, but now he is based in Atlanta directing the whole movement — though in these days he is back here — and his church has another local leader). But the Capitol was already ringed by policemen with truncheons and Highway Police in their cowboy hats, turquoise jerkins and khaki trousers. The pavements were swarming with whites, mostly poor whites who are the worst racists, ready to use their fists, young hooligans working in teams (their organization, which is only barely clandestine, is the Ku Klux Klan), but also comfortable middle-class people, families with children, all there to watch and shout slogans and obscenities against the blacks locked inside the church, plus of course dozens of amateur photographers taking shots of such unusual Sunday events. The crowd’s attitude varied between derision, as though they were watching monkeys asking for civil rights (genuine derision, from people who never thought the blacks could get such ideas in their heads), to hatred, cries of provocation, crow-like sounds made by the young thugs. Here and there, along the pavement, there are also a few small groups of blacks, standing aside, men and women, dressed in their best clothes, watching silently and still, in an attitude of composure.

The waiting becomes more and more unbearable, the blacks must by now have finished their service and must be ready to come out; the Capitol steps are blocked by the police, all the pavements are blocked by the crowd of whites who are now angry and shouting ‘Come out, niggers!’ The blacks start to appear on the steps of their church and begin singing a hymn; the whites begin to make a racket, howling and insulting them. The fire-fighters arrive with their hoses and position themselves all around; the police begin to give orders to clear the streets, in other words to warn the whites that if they stay it is at their own risk and peril, whereas the small groups of blacks are dispersed roughly. There is a sound of horse-hooves and the scene is invaded by cowboys wearing the CD (Civil Defense) armband, a local militia of volunteers to keep public order, armed with sticks and guns; the police and militia are there to avoid incidents and see that the blacks clear off, but in reality the whites remain in charge of the street, the blacks stay in their church singing hymns, the police manage to send away only the most peaceful whites, the white thugs become more and more menacing and I who am keen to stay and see how things turn out (naturally, I am on my own; the few problack whites cannot allow themselves to be seen in these situations, well-known as they are) find myself surrounded by tougher and tougher looking characters, but also by youths who are there as though to see something funny, and just to make a noise. (I will later learn — though I did not see him — that there is also a white Methodist minister — the only white man in Montgomery with the courage to make a stand for the blacks — and as a result his house and his church have already been bombed twice by the KKK — who was there in front of the church and had organized his white congregation into providing a service to take the blacks safely from the church door to the cars; but, I repeat, I did not see him; the images in my head are of an all-out racial war, with no halfway houses.) Then begins the most painful part to watch: the blacks come out of the church a few at a time, some head down a sidestreet that I cannot see, but which I think the police have cleared of whites, but others go down Dexter Avenue in small groups along the pavements where the white thugs have gathered, walking away silently with their heads held high amid choruses of threatening and obscene sneers, insults and gestures.

African Americans attempting to march to the Capitol from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (Photograph: Nelson Malden / Alabama Department of Archives & History)

In a sentiment of tragic pertinence to our own era, a half-century of pseudo-progress later, he adds:

At every insult or witticism made by a white, the other whites, men and women, burst out laughing, sometimes with almost hysterical insistence, but sometimes also just like that, affably, and these people, as far as I am concerned, are the most awful, this all-out racism combined with affability.

Of all the protesters, Calvino is most moved by the young black women, who model persistence poise as the most powerful force of nonviolent resistance:

The most admirable ones are the black girls: they come down the road in twos or threes, and those thugs spit on the ground before their feet, standing in the middle of the pavement and forcing the girls to zigzag past them, shouting abuse at them and making as though to trip them up, and the black girls continue to chat among themselves, never do they move in such a way as to suggest that they want to avoid them, never do they alter their route when they see them blocking their path, as though they were used to these scenes right from birth.

Calvino captures the gruesome violence encircling the nonviolence movement:

With this courtroom coffee-shop row, last week the whole city went into a state of tension like in a civil war, the KKK put bombs in several houses (I visited some of the people who had been bombed) and a few days ago they clubbed a black woman over the head with a baseball bat and the judge did not find the KKK person accused guilty despite witnesses, photographs, etc. The thing that is difficult for a European to understand is how these things can happen in a nation which is 75 per cent nonsegregationist, and how they can take place without the involvement of the rest of the country. But the autonomy of the individual States is such that here they are even more outside Washington’s jurisdiction or New York public opinion, than if they were, say, in the Middle East.

Montgomery City Police officers on motorcycles in front of the Montgomery City Jail (Photograph: Nelson Malden / Alabama Department of Archives & History)

He details his unforgettable encounter with Dr. King:

The minute I arrived in Montgomery, into the hottest part of this situation, I learnt that King was in town and I got them to take me to him. He is a very stout and capable person … with a little moustache: the fact that he is a pastor has nothing to do with his physical appearance (his second-in-command and successor, Abernathy, a young rather fat man who also has a small moustache, looks like a jazz-player), these are politicians whose only weapon is the pulpit and even their non-violence does not really have a mystical aura about it: it is the only form of struggle possible and they use it with the controlled political skill which the extreme harshness of their conditions has taught them. These black leaders — I’ve approached several of them in the last few days, of different tendencies — are lucid, decisive people, totally devoid of black self-pity, not terribly kind (though of course I was an unknown foreigner who had turned up to nose around in days which were very eventful for them).

Calvino steps back to look at the bigger picture, including the hypocrisies with which the nation’s attitude toward race is laced:

The race question is a damnable thing: for a century a huge country like the South has not spoken or thought about anything else, just this problem, whether they are progressives or reactionaries. So I arrive escorted by blacks in the sacristy of Abernathy’s church and King is there along with another black minister who is also a leader, and I am present at a council-of-war meeting where they decide on this Sunday’s course of action which I have just described to you; then we go to another church where the students have gathered, in order to give them this instruction, and then I stay for this dramatic, moving meeting, I the sole white among three thousand black students, perhaps the first white to do so in the whole history of the South. Naturally I have come here also with introductions to extremely racist, ultra-reactionary highsociety ladies, and I have to divide my days with acrobatic skill so that they do not suspect what a deadly enemy they are harbouring in their midst.

In a passage that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil” in the context of the Nazis, Calvino describes his interaction with one such racist highsociety lady:

After the Capitol, I have ten minutes of peace to calm down after all the emotion, then a high-society lady comes to collect me and shows me, as we drive along, their factory of gherkins in vinegar, and hints vaguely at the day’s ‘troubles’ caused by that agitator Luther King. This famous Southern aristocracy gives me the impression of being uniquely stupid in its continual harking back to the glories of the Confederacy; this Confederate patriotism which survives intact after a century, as though they were talking of things from their youth, in the tone of someone who is confident you share their emotions, is something which is more unbearable than ridiculous.

In a letter from January of 1985, shortly before his death, Calvino reflects on his decision not to publish the American diaries:

I decided not to publish the book because rereading it at proof stage I felt it was too slight as a work of literature and not original enough to be a work of journalistic reportage. Was I right? Who knows?

Perhaps only the future knows — and from the vantage point of our present, which was then his future, how fortunate that these insightful and timely writings now survive. Calvino himself captures the broader significance of the questions they raise in another piece from the volume:

What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.

Young civil rights marchers, Montgomery, Alabama (Photograph: Stephen Somerstein)

Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic Hermit in Paris with Albert Einstein and W.E.B. Du Bois’s little-known correspondence about racial justice, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s sobering 1970 conversation about race and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, and Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz’s unheralded civil rights advocacy, then revisit Calvino on the two types of writers, photography and the art of presence, and how to assert yourself and live with integrity.

BP

An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’

“Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”

Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) used Christian social ethics and the New Testament concept of “love” heavily in his writings and speeches, he was as influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions, Gandhi’s political writings, Buddhism’s notion of the interconnectedness of all beings, and Ancient Greek philosophy. His enduring ethos, at its core, is nonreligious — rather, it champions a set of moral, spiritual, and civic responsibilities that fortify our humanity, individually and collectively.

Nowhere does he transmute spiritual ideas from various traditions into secular principles more masterfully than in his extraordinary 1958 essay “An Experiment in Love,” in which he examines the six essential principles of his philosophy of nonviolence, debunks popular misconceptions about it, and considers how these basic tenets can be used in guiding any successful movement of nonviolent resistance. Penned five years before his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail and exactly a decade before his assassination, the essay was eventually included in the indispensable A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (public library) — required reading for every human being with a clicking mind and a ticking heart.

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 (Photograph by Dick DeMarsico. Library of Congress.)

In the first of the six basic philosophies, Dr. King addresses the tendency to mistake nonviolence for passivity, pointing out that it is a form not of cowardice but of courage:

It must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight… The way of nonviolent resistance … is ultimately the way of the strong man. It is not a method of stagnant passivity… For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

He turns to the second tenet of nonviolence:

Nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from ‘Waterloo and Trafalgar.’ Click image for more.

In considering the third characteristic of nonviolence, Dr. King appeals to the conscientious recognition that those who perpetrate violence are often victims themselves:

The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by the evil. If he is opposing racial injustice, the nonviolent resister has the vision to see that the basic tension is not between the races… The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness…. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

Out of this recognition flows the fourth tenet:

Nonviolent resistance [requires] a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back… The nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it. He does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it “as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber.”

That, in fact, is precisely how Dr. King himself entered jail five years later. To those skeptical of the value of turning the other cheek, he offers:

Unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

The fifth basic philosophy turns the fourth inward and arrives at the most central point of the essay — the noblest use of what we call “love”:

Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Let’s Be Enemies’ by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Here, Dr. King turns to Ancient Greek philosophy, pointing out that the love he speaks of is not the sentimental or affectionate kind — “it would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense,” he readily acknowledges — but love in the sense of understanding and redemptive goodwill. The Greeks called this agape — a love distinctly different from the eros, reserved for our lovers, or philia, with which we love our friends and family. Dr. King explains:

Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object… Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friends and enemy; it is directed toward both. If one loves an individual merely on account of his friendliness, he loves him for the sake of the benefits to be gained from the friendship, rather than for the friend’s own sake. Consequently, the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.

This notion is nearly identical to one of Buddhism’s four brahmaviharas, or divine attitudes — the concept of Metta, often translated as lovingkindness or benevolence. The parallel speaks not only to Dr. King’s extraordinarily diverse intellectual toolkit of influences and inspirations — a high form of combinatorial creativity necessary for any meaningful contribution to humanity’s common record — but also to the core commonalities between the world’s major spiritual and philosophical traditions.

In a sentiment that Margaret Mead and James Baldwin would echo twelve years later in their spectacular conversation on race“In any oppressive situation both groups suffer, the oppressors and the oppressed,” Mead observed, asserting that the oppressors suffer morally with the recognition of what they’re committing, which Baldwin noted is “a worse kind of suffering” — Dr. King adds:

Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person — his need for belonging to the best in the human family… Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen for a vintage children’s-book adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Click image for more.

At the heart of agape, he argues, is the notion of forgiveness — something Mead and Baldwin also explored with great intellectual elegance. Dr. King writes:

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action… Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community…. If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.

With this, he turns to the sixth and final principle of nonviolence as a force of justice, undergirded by the nonreligious form of spirituality that Dani Shapiro elegantly termed “an animating presence” and Alan Lightman described as the transcendence of “this strange and shimmering world.” Dr. King writes:

Nonviolent resistance … is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power of infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

A Testament of Hope is an absolutely essential read in its totality. Complement it with Dr. King on the two types of law, Albert Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on racial justice, and Tolstoy and Gandhi’s equally forgotten but immensely timely correspondence on why we hurt each other.

BP

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Justice and the Four Steps to Successful Nonviolent Resistance

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

On April 3, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) began coordinating a series of sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations against racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 12, he was violently arrested on the charge of parading without a permit, per an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” that a local circuit judge had issued two days earlier, a week into the protests.

On the day of Dr. King’s arrest, eight male Alabama clergymen issued a public statement directed at him, titled “The Call for Unity,” following a letter penned a few months earlier under the title “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” They accused him of being an “outsider” to the community’s cause, suggested that racial injustice in Alabama shouldn’t be his business, and claimed that the nonviolent resistance demonstrations he led were “unwise and untimely.” “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations,” they wrote. It was such a blatant example of the very injustice Dr. King had dedicated his life to eradicating — the hijacking of what should be “common sense” to all in the service of what is “common” and convenient to only those in power — that he felt compelled to respond. The following day, while still in jail, he penned a remarkable book-length open letter. (“Never before have I written a letter this long,” he marveled as he penned the final paragraphs.)

Aware of the media’s power to incite the popular imagination, King and his team began distributing mimeographed copies to the clergy of Birmingham and eventually made their way to the press. Major newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Post, published excerpts. The full text was eventually published as Letter from Birmingham City Jail (public library) and became not only a foundational text of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s but an enduring manifesto for social justice and the human struggle for equality in every sense of the word, in every corner of the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 (Photograph by Dick DeMarsico. Library of Congress.)

Drawing on his vast pool of intellectual resources — from Socrates to St. Augustine to Thoreau — and his own singular gift for blending the powers of a philosopher, a preacher, and a poet, Dr. King debunks the clergymen’s arguments one by one, beginning with their assertion that the injustice in Birmingham is not his “outsider” business:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

He outlines the four pillars of nonviolent resistance — which bear a poignant parallel to the four rules for arguing intelligently that philosopher Daniel Dennett would formulate more than half a century later — and writes:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) negotiation; 3) self-purification; and 4) direct action.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s timeless wisdom on the constructive and destructive elements in human nature“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” he wrote in 1926, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” — King puts forth the wonderful notion of “creative tension” as a force of constructive action:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue… There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

King’s ideas undoubtedly influenced South African writer, freedom-fighter, and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer when, a decade later, she contemplated the role of the writer as precisely such a gadfly on the back of injustice — something King further illuminates when he adds:

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing create, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

He considers why such nonviolent instigation of “creative tension” is vital to the claiming of freedom:

History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but … groups are 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.

Dr. King’s handwritten notes for the letter (The King Center Archive)

He zooms in on the accusation of untimeliness and, arguing that “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” and puts in poignant perspective the relativity of timeliness:

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun-town is closed to colored children, and see depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; … when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.

Indeed, he argues that at the root of the clergymen’s accusations is a profound misconception of time. Time, as we know, is a human invention that Galileo perfected; like all technology, it is a neutral tool that can be bent to wills good and evil, put toward ends constructive and destructive — something King captures beautifully:

All this … grows out of a tragic misconception of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift out national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

He goes on to explore the expatiation of the legal system for the unjust ends of those in power:

There are two types of laws: There are just and unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” … An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong…

[…]

An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority group that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

In a sense, contemporary popular culture is built on the same foundation as unjust law — on the warping of sameness and difference, which Shonda Rhimes addressed with extraordinary elegance of insight in her Human Rights Campaign award acceptance speech. To King, indeed, the law should be reclaimed as an ally to the populace in its diverse totality rather than a formalized system of objectifying people. He sees nonviolent resistance not as a way to destroy the law but as a way to normalize it:

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, … and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

But the law, of course, cannot and should not be separate from the social forces that support it. In one of his most poignant remarks in the letter, which resonates all the more deeply in our present culture where impenitent reaction has replaced considered response and become the seedbed of misunderstanding, King adds:

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.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail remains an indispensable read for any thinking, feeling member of the human family. Complement it with Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice and Margaret Mead on the root of racism and how to counter it.

Thank you, Jacqueline

BP

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

“The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion… The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.”

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin insisted in examining the building blocks of a juster future. “The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote across the Atlantic as she was advancing the era’s other great human rights cause.

A century before Baldwin and De Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explored this question of how the choices we make in the present liberate the future from the past and make the world over in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library) — his first book, published when he was only thirty-two, a disaffected public school teacher who had become one of the country’s most promising young writers with the stern yet generous guidance of his first and best editor, Margaret Fuller.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

This was an era of immense cultural upheaval, in which the air of revolution was saturated with the urgencies of abolition and women’s emancipation. Ensconced in the woods of Concord, attuned to the elements that far predated and would far outlive the turmoils of the present — the trees, the rivers, the cycles of the seasons — Thoreau spent his days contemplating the most elemental questions of human existence and our civilizational conscience. It was with this widest possible perspective that he focused his precocious wisdom on the pressing issues of social change, using this long lever of insight to make the present a fulcrum for elevating the future.

Bedeviled by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, having just modeled for his country how to use civil disobedience to advance justice — a model that would come to influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — he considers the tectonics of change on the scale of society and civilization:

As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of society. The greatest appreciable physical revolutions are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-paced water, and the subterranean fire… We are independent of the change we detect. The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation which is the most vital. The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.

If history teaches us one thing about the origins and originators of the greatest social change — an animating question in Figuring — it is that those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves often blind to their own spark. Thoreau’s contemporary and kindred revolutionary spirit Elizabeth Barrett Browning would articulate this with stunning succinctness in her groundbreaking 1856 book-length poem Aurora Leigh:

The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do…

The young Thoreau channels this sentiment in his own lyrical prose, suspended as always between the buoyant and the melancholy:

A man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.

Illustration from Henry Hikes to Fitchburg — a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy.

One of Thoreau’s most countercultural yet incisive points is that true social reform has little to do with politics, for genuine cultural change operates on cycles far longer and more invisible than the perpetual churning of immediacies with which the political state and the political conscience are occupied. Rather than dueling with petty surface facts, as politics is apt to, the true revolutionary and reformer dwells in humanity’s largest truths, aiming to transfigure the deepest strata of reality. In consonance with the need for a telescopic perspective, Thoreau writes:

To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend. Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.

Change, Thoreau reminds us, begins when we finally choose to critically examine and then recalibrate the ill-serving codes and conventions handed down to us, often unquestioned, by the past and its power structures. It is essentially an act of the imagination first. Long before Ursula K. Le Guin asserted that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Thoreau calls for imagining nobler alternatives to the dicta and mindsets we have inherited:

In my short experience of human life, the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead. It is grateful to make one’s way through this latest generation as through dewy grass. Men are as innocent as the morning to the unsuspicious… I love man-kind, but I hate the institutions of the dead un-kind. Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

A century before Hannah Arendt considered the most extreme and gruesome manifestation of this tendency in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, informed by the Holocaust and its incomprehensible phenomenon of ordinary people “just following orders” to murder, Thoreau writes:

Herein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening? But certainly there are modes by which a man may put bread into his mouth which will not prejudice him as a companion and neighbor.

Most of our errors, Thoreau observes, stem not from being unwitting of the right choice but from being unwise in the willingness or unwillingness to choose it:

Men do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference. What we need to know in any case is very simple.

To unmoor ourselves from the burdens of the past, he reminds us, we must be engaged in an act of continual and conscious self-renewal:

All men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground. Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot. Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.

A century later, Bertrand Russell — himself a humanist of the highest order and a rare seer of elemental truth — would liken the optimal human existence to a river.

Couple this particular fragment of Thoreau’s abidingly insightful A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — which also gave us his wisdom on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius — with his contemporary Frederick Douglass on art as a tool of social change, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayer, the myth of productivity, knowing vs. seeing, and defining your own success.

BP

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