Reading Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ after the Dallas shooting

Martin Luther King, Race relations, DallasMartin Luther King Jr. in 1964. (Photo: United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division)

By Daniel Kato

“If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.” 

               – Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

In his famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. strategically situated himself between a black elite that was losing democratic legitimacy as it increasingly divorced itself from the plight of the black masses, and anarchic forces that were flirting with violence but were able to garner democratic legitimacy out of sheer desperation. King was trying to provide a third option between doing too little and too much. Pragmatically speaking, he was providing the lesser of three evils.

Amidst the fallout from last week’s shooting in Dallas, where gunman Micah Johnson killed five police officers, we need to reflect on MLK’s pragmatic triangulation. The differences between then and now are more of degree than of kind. King described one side as “a force of complacency, made up in part of…a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.” But in 2016, the ‘do-nothingism’ of the 1960s has been replaced by a ‘do little-ism’: a similarly elite strata does just enough to give off the impression that something is being done, but not enough where something substantive is actually done. Incrementalism of the 2010s is a step forward from the ‘do-nothingism’ of the 1960s, but both are nonetheless driven by a similar force of complacency that is characteristic of elite insulation.

King described the other force as “one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence.” Whereas there are reasons to believe that this force of bitterness and hatred exists today, it is important to distinguish the characterisation of these forces. King identifies this other force with black nationalist groups and the Nation of Islam, whereas the shooter in Dallas is, as far as we know, not affiliated with any group. In both instances however, there is an element of nihilism about the inefficacy of mainstream political institutions to address issues of racial violence, to the extent that questions of reciprocity emerge, particularly relating to self-defence. If the police are persistently killing blacks and the institutions supposedly responsible for holding the police accountable find themselves incapable (or unwilling) to do anything substantive about it, then what duties and obligations do these non-rights-bearing citizens have to other members of the polity?

The incident in Dallas has nevertheless elevated this ethical question into a tactical one. Actions that were considered beyond the pale are now on the table. Extending the boundaries in such a manner is frightful, and hence raises the stakes of the political. Individuals will continue to suffer as long as systemic abuses continue to go unabated. The price of exonerating the guilty is to further expose the innocent. We have seemingly reached a breaking point wherein instances of racial violence engender a level of political exhaustion that leads some to perform the ultimate act of political nihilism.

The conditions are such that a reconstitution of the political might be necessary. If Dallas was an aberration, then the incident is of no political merit, and King’s words should ring hollow. But if Dallas was somehow symptomatic of a desperation that comes from a deep sense of political alienation, then King’s words resurrect an urgency that we must come to grips with. Elite leadership is no longer tethered to a level of democratic accountability that people feel connected to. Alienation is so deeply entrenched that the boundaries of actionable behaviour has extended beyond notions of civility and life for that matter.

The difficulties of establishing a political position that both sympathises with those who have been struck down by the police and the police who themselves were struck down reflects a politics that does not currently exist. Such a politics would involve a frank discussion about the prerogative powers that police officers wield and the dangers that police officers face. A politics that focused on both would necessarily have to include, at the very least, an account of racism, militarism, lack of social spending, crime and gun control. This kind of politics requires a broad, overarching analysis. Unfortunately, the current state of politics can only provide divisive fear-mongering or myopic distractions, neither of which addresses the underlying issues as much as it sweeps them under the rug.

The right clamours for less democracy, less liberalism and more security. They call for retrenchment when what is needed is a reimagining. The politics of fear has trumped both democracy and liberalism, and at a time when both democracy and liberalism are receding, further alienation will only breed even more resentment and retaliation.

Liberals voice sympathy for victims but are bereft of any significant policy changes that could actually make a difference. Clichés are repeated, excuses abound, and results are constantly lacking. The vicious cycle of ineptitude has created a crisis in confidence that is only slightly muted by the virtuous cycle of demonisation that the right constantly conjures up.

It’s not that the center cannot hold; it is that there is no center to hold onto.

Inclusivity is no longer simply a utopian ideal, but a necessary buy-in at a time when it is not clear if our politics is up to the challenges facing it. A politics of fear needs to be replaced by a politics of invigoration that is democratic in nature and liberal in scope. This is a radical project if only because it is something that cannot be done by politics as it currently stands. When ‘liberal’ institutions reinforce further de-democratisation and ‘democratic’ movements are becoming increasingly illiberal, liberal democracy itself has now become a radical project.

That brings me to the possibility of a third option, of the kind that King pragmatically pursued in his 1963 Letter, which addresses the vacuous nature of the politics-that-be, but does so in a manner different from the nihilistic response of sniper fire. The Black Lives Matter movement might be one of the few things capable of providing this reconstitution. In much the same way as King was trying to provide a pragmatic option out of the do-nothing approach of the top and the destructive nature of the bottom, BLM might be that very force which could provide a reimagining of the political that is democratic in nature and liberal in scope. As was the case in King’s letter, pragmatic triangulation was less about agreeing with him as it was about disagreeing more with the other alternatives. At a time of radical uncertainty, groups like Black Lives Matter are a voice of pragmatism. They might not be perfect, but they are less worse than the other alternatives.

Daniel Kato is a lecturer of political science at Queen Mary University of London. His book, Liberalizing Lynching, has just been published by Oxford University Press. This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. Republished from openDemocracy.

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