Where Do We Direct Our Criticism?

Where Do We Direct Our Criticism? May 18, 2017

I’ve noticed a pattern of affirming African American activists’ goals—i.e. the wrongness of the oppression and barriers they face—while at the same time questioning their methods and the actions they take. We see this today, in opposition to Black Lives Matter. We saw this in the 1960s, in opposition to the civil rights movement. But this pattern wasn’t new even then.

You can see this pattern here, in an evangelical article from the 1920s:

We remember reading, years ago, the report of a scene in a Negro church in a southern city which made a strong impression upon us. It was the awful reconstruction period and the time of the Ku Klux Klan and lynch law, when frightened fugitives fled through the country for safety…

The excitement was intense as speaker after speaker rose in hot denunciation [of the violence they were facing], all emptying their pockets on the table ‘to by rifles,’ as they said. … The ministers in the pulpit tried to quite them … an elderly deacon lifted his quavering voice in one of their ‘Spirituals’ — ‘Wait upon de Lord, oh — Wait upon de Lord!’

When the song was over, a man arose … His motion was, that since man refused to do them justice, they should appeal their cause to the court of the Lord Jesus, and ask Him to judge between them and their oppressors. The motion was seconded, and put and carried by a unanimous rising vote. … After this the assembly, quieted and content, dispersed.

The author portrays the violence and oppression faced by newly freed blacks as a bad thing, but reserves his primary criticism not for that oppression but for the way the means by which the oppressed group fights back. God forbid newly freed slaves attacked by the Ku Klux Klan take action to protect themselves and their rights, if that means violence—or breaking the law.

I’ve often seen people speak against Black Lives Matter protestors who block traffic, commending instead past acts of civil disobedience that didn’t inconvenience anyone, such as sit-ins at lunch counters. What they may not realize is that those sit-ins were controversial at the time. Speak against injustice, by all means! But don’t try to force someone to serve you lunch when they don’t want to—that creates tension and makes people uncomfortable.

Asking for your rights was fine—so long as you did it nicely.

Martin Luther King Jr. addressed this in 1963 in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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 story told in the evangelical publication I began this post with is particularly sad because it didn’t work. Newly freed African Americans across the South were ultimately disenfranchised, terrorized, oppressed, and in some cases killed—and this continued for generations. In tellings like this, “Wait upon the Lord” actively supports the status quo. It decrees that injustice is wrong—but that taking action against it is also wrong.

The theology here is toxic, too. “Wait on the Lord” suggests that you should not take action yourself to solve problems or fix injustices. I am no longer religious, but it is not that alone that makes me squirm at this logic—I have many friends who are Christian who embrace liberation theology and see fighting against oppression as something they are called to do as part of their beliefs and their religion. Besides, the same evangelicals who urged African Americans to wait, for decades, weren’t against working to influence their religious beliefs or to change local policies they disagreed with.

Criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement is the latest front in a long tradition of conservatives and moderates supporting African Americans’ rights in theory while in practice questioning any action African Americans took to realize those rights. There is absolutely a place for discussion of actions and methods and effective ways to create change—but that conversation is best had within the Black Lives Matter movement (just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s had its own internal conversations about tactics).

Perhaps what we need is a sustained conversation about the nature of the opposition civil rights faced, whether in the 1920s or the 1960s. The problem has never been outwardly avowed racists alone. Those who supported African Americans’ rights in theory but spent more time questioning African Americans’ actions and methods than they did speaking out against the oppression these groups served as enablers, providing cover for racists and presenting those African Americans who fought back as the problem. Perhaps a better understanding of this history would help more people to recognize our present.


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