When Martin Luther King, Jr. Clashed With White Moderate Methodists

When Martin Luther King, Jr. Clashed With White Moderate Methodists October 2, 2014

Paul Hardin

When Martin Luther King, Jr. and his entourage descended on Birmingham, Alabama in early 1963, a group of well-intentioned white clergy leaders including moderate Methodist bishops Paul Hardin and Norman Bailey Harmon published an open letter titled “A Call for Unity” pleading for racial conflicts to be negotiated in in private conversations between community leaders rather than through confrontational street protests. Shouldn’t Christians be able to sit down and have a charitable, civil conversation instead of staging dramatic provocations and shouting at each other with megaphones? It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask.

In November, 1962, Birmingham had elected a moderate mayor Albert Boutwell in place of the infamous arch-segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor, who continued to be the Commissioner of Public Safety and basically rejected Mayor Boutwell’s authority altogether. Moderate white and black local business leaders were hopeful about the changes that Boutwell promised to implement and were opposed to the direct action desegregation campaign being organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and local college students. They wanted to give Boutwell time to rein in Connor and avoid sabotaging the business climate of Birmingham in a way that would hurt everybody black and white. But in Bull Connor, the SCLC saw an unhinged racist who would respond to them predictably and provide the perfect controversy to force the federal government to take a stand on civil rights.

This was the environment in which eight prominent white church leaders including moderate Methodist bishops Paul Hardin and Norman Bailey Harmon wrote their letter calling for unity. The letter denounces the demonstrations that were led “by outsiders” (i.e. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and calls for the black citizens of Birmingham to take their lead from “local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area.” It makes the claim that nonviolent direct action is not really nonviolent: “such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems.” It states that the pursuit of racial justice should take place “in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

If the clergy leaders had wanted to, they could have cited a number of Bible passages to support their law and order argument, like Romans 13:1, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” They could have gone so far as to say that the civil rights protesters were violating the injunctions in Mark 9:42, 1 Corinthians 8:9, and Romans 14:13 not to put stumbling blocks before sinners since Bull Connor’s sin was racism and those cruel protesters were baiting him into sin with their marches. The parts of the Bible that speak like a rulebook take a very negative view of any form of political insurrection. But in the narrative of the gospels, we see Jesus behaving like a political insurrectionist, especially when he clears the temple, so we have to scratch our heads about whether Jesus really obeyed all of Paul and Peter’s teachings about the civility with which good Christians are supposed to behave.

For those of us who weren’t alive in the civil rights era, it’s easy to imagine that black people were just walking down the street minding their own business when the racist cops attacked them with water hoses and police dogs. But that’s not the way it happened during the Birmingham campaign. It was a completely staged provocation. It wasn’t people nonchalantly walking to work or to the voter registration booth. They had no reason to be in the street other than to bait the racist cops into responding the way that King and the SCLC knew they would respond so that the news could snap a photo. Furthermore, the SCLC encouraged children and teenagers to skip school in order to protest. They got their kids to play hookey and put them into dangerous situations all so that they could get the game-changer news photos they were praying for. There was so much that today’s “via media” could have criticized about the most decisive campaign in the course of the civil rights movement.

One could argue that King “bullied” the Birmingham business establishment into desegregation by using children as photogenic martyrs to generate national hysteria instead of letting Birmingham go through a more “naturally” paced, “Spirit-led” discernment process. Indeed, the way that King describes non-violent direct action in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail makes it clear that he saw direct action as a strategic form of “bullying” in order to force change:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored… The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

Putting young black bodies in the streets to have their clothes ripped off by fire hoses and police dogs on national television is not the same thing as making a civil, rational argument for desegregation. King knew that he would never win the white citizens of Birmingham, Alabama, by making enough clear, calm rational arguments that appealed to their human dignity. He was certainly capable of very persuasive clear, calm rational argumentation as he showed in the Birmingham jail letter. But the only way to win in Birmingham was to manufacture a public spectacle that made the whole city look backward and stupid enough to threaten an economic crisis if something weren’t done immediately. And in the end, King’s strategy of nonviolent confrontation simply primed the pump for an explosion of property destruction and street violence in response to the police brutality that finally forced the panicked segregationist businessmen to the negotiating table. In other words, King “bullied” the city of Birmingham into ending segregation if “bullying” means to engage in pressure tactics other than civil, calm rational argumentation.

I’m not saying any of this as a criticism of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m just saying that the moderates who think that MLK is their guy are sadly mistaken. He could never have lived up to their moderate fantasy of a perfectly civil, perfectly rational approach to social advocacy, because that’s never the way things have happened in the real world. Social change doesn’t happen without the battering ram of manufactured or exploited crises. King understood this. He wasn’t the beady-eyed idealist that his moderate groupies want him to be. He was a radical. He consistently chose revolutionary confrontation over “civil” dialogue. He would probably argue that there could be no genuine dialogue between blacks and whites without first leveling the playing field through revolutionary confrontation.

Even though he insisted upon being the recipient of the violence in every violent confrontation for both strategic and ideological reasons, King deliberately baited racist whites in the South into acts of violence that would unravel the power of segregation. It was basically the perfect living out of a Christus Victor interpretation of the cross. If King had stuck to polite rational discourse, he would have been ignored and cast aside. Too many moderates conflate the distinction between nonviolence and violence with the distinction between civility and confrontation. To call confrontation “violent” just because it isn’t polite does violence to the concept of violence.

In their call for calm and rational negotiations between community leaders in Birmingham, Bishops Hardin and Harmon refused to recognize the fact that not everyone in the room has the same amount of power. The amount of power a person has can be measured as an inverse relationship to the degree to which that person has to make a scene and be a rude “bully” in order to have his/her rights respected. Black women acquired the racist stereotype of being “angry” because they have to raise their voices and speak sharply to get respect from white men who can be as jovial and good-natured as they want without compromising their power. People who have power don’t have to make a scene to get what they want. They can make things happen with a few quick text messages to friends in high places rather than resorting to noisy, messy public demonstrations that ruffle other peoples’ feathers and make them look undignified.

So it’s either naive or cynical to say that you want to stop the extremists of “both sides” from being “disruptive” if one side has insider relationships that preclude the need to be “disruptive.” People with power don’t have to disrupt anything; their agenda is the agenda that gets done.

There’s a difference between limiting yourself to nonviolence and limiting yourself to civility. Nothing about how the Bible describes the actions of the Holy Spirit leads me to believe that the Spirit only moves among people who are treating one another with civility. I think civility should be the default when there aren’t issues of injustice that we’re dealing with. But I don’t think we are forbidden in the body of Christ from using nonviolent direct action that some moderates call “bullying” in order to change the power dynamics so that a real conversation can occur. If you’re offended by that, then please don’t invoke the whitewashed caricature of Dr. King to support your views, because nonviolent “bullying” of the powerful in solidarity with the marginalized is precisely what he did, rightly or wrongly.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’m unclear as to what this via media thing is? Was that a group active in the 1960’s? You talk about it but provide no quotes or links to corroborate your analysis. Strange. It’s almost as if you’ve constructed a straw man and appropriated King to take down that straw man.

    • You use the same logic as the two Methodist bishops who wrote the call for unity letter that King responded to. If you’re interested in learning from other people there are resources for you to do that here. If your purpose is to justify yourself then just apply the “straw man” stamp and move on.

      • summers-lad

        I also don’t know what you mean by via media. Drew asked a simple question. Could you give us an answer?

        • Daniel

          via media is a term meaning “the middle way.” It is what many in the UMC cry for when they feel the extreme fringes of each side are getting carried away.

          • summers-lad

            Thanks Daniel.

  • Peggye Williams Mills

    While admitting to this strategy during “the Movement,” I applaud the effectiveness. To act without planning would have been folly for our side. But, the article had a negative tone in the description of the tactic. I think of Harriet Tubman, “Uncle Tom” and countless others, who were forced to use duplicity in the cause of freedom from bondage. Anyone capable would have been a fool to act otherwise.

    • Oh I absolutely think it was legitimate. I framed it as I did because today’s moderates would have had all sorts of criticisms.

      • Peggye Williams Mills

        Thanks for explaining.

  • Reminds me of being at Ferguson City Council last month. One of the first young women to speak responded to the mayor’s attempts to “accomplish the business of the day” with the statement – “You say you need to get business done, but we are not letting you go back to business as usual!” It made me wish that the mayor had simply suspended business and started by listening at the beginning of the first City Council meeting since Mike Brown’s shooting, instead of insisting on acting so rigid when people’s hearts were breaking and trust was at a minimum. He made them feel he betrayed their trust by behaving as if the upheaval of the community was less important than a discussion about a street lamp. Caring about what others in the community care about, and not treating them as “drama” to be squashed is essential to maintaining relationships and communicating trust and respect. Trust within a community is vital, and we don’t accomplish trust by “doing business” (although, yes, at some point business does need to get accomplished). In an itinerant system like ours, trust is central, and I don’t see how people think we can move forward with it crumbling. I wish we could work on relationships, listen to one another, build trust – it saddens my heart.

  • karlkroger

    I guess I’ll post here too…

    You may have multiple fronts for discussions, but I’m gonna start here. Your post is bold and thorough. I can imagine you will be unfairly critiqued, as it looks like you already have. I do think to Drew’s point at the site, that a link would be appropriate. Perhaps some link love for Jeremy would also be good.

    I love your line about Jesus and Paul and Peter.

    Your point about privilege, behavior, and perception is phenomenal: “People who have power don’t have to make a scene to get what they want. They can make things happen with a few quick text messages to friends in high places rather than resorting to noisy, messy public demonstrations that ruffle other peoples’ feathers and make them look undignified.”

    I personally found your point about non-violence and violence vs civility and confrontation really helpful. However, I still go back to my concerns expressed in our recent Twitter conversation; I don’t believe love bullies. Love may confront, but it should not bully. Reality is of course much more messy than such a black and white statement, and I’m sure my own activism has ventured into questionable confrontation, but how you have articulated the means of freedom for the oppressed does not sound like cruciform love to me.

  • Christyinlosangeles

    Have you read Tavis Smiley’s Death of a King? He makes a lot of the points that you make here – that Dr. King was far more radical than we’ve portrayed him, that we’ve turned him into this warm and fuzzy icon, when in fact his stances on the Vietnam War and income inequality and poverty were considered so radical that he alienated the White House, the media, and most of his supporters – both white AND black in the year before he was assassinated. I’m a tremendous admirer of Dr. King, and the way that we’ve reduced one of the greatest Americans this country has ever produced into an unthreatening, safe icon guy who made a speech bugs me to no end. Many of the people who claim to admire him now would HATE him if he were still alive and saying the same thing now that he said then.

    And I’m all for non-violent direct action. It’s not the only tool needed for social change, but sometimes, it’s the right one. Blessings on your disruption. Sometimes civility is entirely over-rated.

  • Nancy R Smith

    What a great and extremely helpful article, Morgan! Thanks for all your research and analysis with the validity of your own experience! Now we can read history and recognize the efforts of via media individuals who by definition were genuinely but ineffectively trying to accomplish change in a civil manner. When injustice is entrenched in the privileged system it is useless to expect change through the polite political correctness which itself is defined by the system.

  • John Thomas

    Thank you Morgan– I’m proud to be a UM in the Louisiana Annual Conference with you serving in NOLA. Thank you for your prophetic witness– too often our denominational leadership doesn’t understanding the enormous power difference between them and LGBT persons (including those attempting to go through candidacy and ordination)… telling us we LGBT people (“issues”) should be grateful we’re allowed at the Table at all– even if we can’t be blessed, ordained, are refused membership, and told we’re not oppressed (the lack of bishops condemning violence against LGBT persons here in the US and in Africa speaks volumes). Much work to do here, and with United Methodists outside of the US. There’s also a place for dialog and Holy Conferencing, WITH LGBT people giving testimony, but there’s also a time to act when all other means are taken from us, when the Book of Discipline and Bible are used as weapons to condemn and oppress.
    I’m a UM, there are many conservative Methodist/Wesleyan denominations, but there isn’t a single that’s more progressive than the UMC– I stay for the LGBT youth discriminated against in a weighted system, and to create change here, despite the vast void between our beautiful Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification, and our actual treatment of “the other”.

  • Nancy R Smith

    When people object to you privately about your writing, do you ever comment on that here?