Lessons from Birmingham

mlkIn April of 1963, Martin Luther King found himself enduring harsh treatment in the Birmingham jail. He had been incarcerated, along with some fellow non-violent protestors, for disobeying a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” He organized these actions in response to a long history of brutal racism and segregation in Alabama as well as a string of broken promises negotiated through more conventional political action.

While in jail, a Negro trustee slipped King a newspaper and he read an article co-written by a group of eight well-intentioned Alabama clergymen. The clergymen acknowledged that social injustice existed, but criticized King and his activities as “unwise and untimely.” They argued that political action should be restricted to the courts and the ballot box; that the protests violated the law; that the demonstrations caused tension; and that it was not the right time for such action.

In response to these “sensible” admonishments for moderation, King began to write a response in the margins of the newspaper and on continued it scraps of paper smuggled in to him. This became his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (read it here). In it, he eloquently refuted their specific criticisms and also shared his feelings about their calls for “moderation.” Regarding well-intentioned white moderates, he wrote this:

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 …” 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. “

King’s observations were not only relevant to the Black struggle, but are still universal in their applicability to any social justice movement whether it be in the area of gender, race, choice, environment, or even atheism. All have been held back by these well-intentioned “supporters.” While the atheist movement (to the extent that one actually exists) is certainly not comparable to the Black experience, we can and should listen to what King said about such movements. Some leaders of the atheist movement today might be tempted to express a similar sentiment to that of King:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the moderate Atheist. They continually offer the very reasonable-sounding counsel of moderation. Now is not the time, they say, this is not the right battle. Action will only make us look angry; it is undignified; it will put off our opponents; it will confirm their impression of us; things will get better if only we don’t make waves; it’s not a big deal; we’re the mature ones. The only thing these moderate atheists really seem to be passionate about is complaining within their safe inner circles and stridently urging inaction. The only thing they seem to be truly militant about is doing nothing.

This in no way suggests that we atheists should be or even need to be “angry.” It is a false choice to suggest that the only alternative to complacency is anger. Like King, we also must find the balance between inaction and extremism. In that same letter he wrote “we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.”

In regard to accusations of extremism, King pointed out in his letter that all great persons in history were considered extremists. “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

As in other movements, it is up to us atheists to answer that same question both individually and collectively. Will we be extremists for the preservation of the status quo of belief and superstition, or extremists for the promotion of a society based on objective truths and fact-based thinking?

So this is my message, nay my plea, to our moderate atheist “friends” who incessantly criticize atheist actions with calls for “civility and moderation.” You are not actually part of a movement if you are afraid to make waves. Please stop helping or at least get out of our way. It is not our actions that empower others to portray us as extremists. It is your public pleas for moderation that give our opponents the ammunition to use against us all.

And to you atheist leaders, there are and will always be honest disagreements about what actions are too much or ill-advised. But these discussions should be taken offline, not published in the newspapers. If you leaders do not start to talk together more effectively, compete less, publically support each other more, and perhaps even coordinate and cooperate, you will remain the unwitting allies of our opponents. You will continue to make it far too easy for them to divide and conquer, painting the secular group urging inaction as the “nice reasonable atheists who know their place” and the one conducting the action as those “angry uppity atheists.”

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