Social Activism

Systemic Lawyering Webinar #4 – Focus on Immigration

Copy of Systemic Lawyering Series Flyer

This week the “Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis” Webinar Tuesday April 14 at 12pm EST, will focus on immigration.

Join at:  https://harvard.zoom.us/j/770662864. 

This week’s session, Tuesday April 14 at 12pm EST, focuses on immigration and features the following panelists:

Next week’s session, Tuesday, April 21, at 12pm EST, will focus on the criminal legal system and feature:

The series features systemically oriented lawyers and activists in fields most affected by our latest crisis. Each session examines the special challenges posed by the crisis, the pressing needs, the new opportunities, and the more general lessons for lawyers, law students, and others committed to promoting systemic change.

For more details about the series, including links to videos of previous sessions, see https://systemicjusticeblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/systemic-lawyering-webinar-series/

You can watch one of last week’s webinars, featuring Esme Caramello, Joey Longley, and Derecka Purnell here.

If you are a law student looking for ways to pitch in: https://www.peoplesparity.org/coronavirus/

Click here to join the webinars via Zoom: https://harvard.zoom.us/j/770662864.

Systemic Lawyering Series – Week 2

Flyer for Session #2

This week there will be two sessions of the “Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis” Webinar,  both available at:  https://harvard.zoom.us/j/770662864. The series features systemically oriented lawyers and activists in fields most affected by our latest crisisEach session examines the special challenges posed by the crisis, the pressing needs, the new opportunities, and the more general lessons for lawyers, law students, and others committed to promoting systemic change. 

On Tuesday April 7 at 12pm EST, the webinar will feature: 

On Wednesday April 8 at 5pm EST, there will be a special session on decarceration hosted by students from the Justice Lab featuring: 

For full details, see https://systemicjusticeblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/systemic-lawyering-webinar-series/ 

Watch last week’s webinar, featuring Sabi Ardalan, Matthew Duffy, Jane Flanagan, and Andrea Sáenz at: https://systemicjusticeblog.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/systemic-lawyering-in-times-of-crisis-webinar-one/ 

If you are a law student wanting to pitch in, visit: https://www.peoplesparity.org/coronavirus/ 

Click here to join the webinars via Zoom: https://harvard.zoom.us/j/770662864. 

Letter from Birmingham Jail

MLK birmingham jail

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. 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. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that 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, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be 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. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps 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 have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; 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 Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; 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 despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. 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. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, 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. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so 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 who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

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.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent 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 so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts 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, in the knowledge 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 our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and 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. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. 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. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” 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? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Published in:
King, Martin Luther Jr.

#HLSUntaped @ The Record

#HLSUntaped

From Harvard Law Record, a collection of recent editorials and essays about race and racism:

More Student Voices

 

finally and fully embrace the difficult task of understanding and reckoning with our history. We must acknowledge the magnitude of American racism—including the way it poisons our own community—and recognize the urgency of pulling it down.

He wonders whether

students, with their unique sets of experiences informed by their own reading of history, are more closely attuned than he realizes to some truly deep obstacles to change?

He also critiques the effects of focusing on “dry technical issues”:

Issues of race are inextricably woven into the broad blanket of American law. The ideology of white supremacy and racial difference was at the epicenter of this society’s birth and upbringing. And it has settled deep in this country’s blood and bones, including in the gigantic, complex bundle of laws and court cases and customs that determine how we govern ourselves.

So when law schools presented with roomfuls of pliant young minds acquiesce in reducing major areas of law to “dry, technical issues,” they play a role in entrenching a system with racism in its marrow.

And suggests that even a seeming neutral, rational argument

often reflects a documented tendency of societies to legitimize the structures that have long secured dominant-group entitlements. Social psychologists call this tendency system justification theory. If this impulse to preserve the status quo drives much of the opposition to affirmative action, then it too is a formidable obstacle to change.

Coby conludes:

Harvard Law School vows in its mission statement “to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of society.” To advance justice in our particular society, where the methodical administration of racial injustice has reigned for centuries, we must commit to uncovering the roots of the ideology of racial difference and breaking them out of the stubborn, hard-packed ground so many of us have comfortably trod for so long.

Read Bianca’s full article here and Coby’s here.

Derrick Bell Protests HLS – 25 Years Ago Today

Derrick Bell at HLS

“The reality, of course, is that few institutions — and certainly not Harvard — move toward more racial inclusiveness without pressure sufficient to awaken a tardy recognition that a modicum of diversity can be a valuable addition to a school’s reputation.”

~ Derrick Bell (quotation from 1998 article)

From Wikipedia:

In 1990, Harvard Law School had 60 tenured professors. Three of these were black men, and five of them were women, but there were no black women among them, a dearth Bell decided to protest with an unpaid leave of absence.  Students supported the move which critics found “counterproductive,” while Harvard administrators cited a lack of qualified candidates . . . .

Related posts:

A Response to Randall Kennedy

Randall

In the spirit of fostering a community-wide conversation, we wanted to respond to Randall Kennedy’s provocative op-ed.  

Although Randy is unperturbed by the black tape recently placed over his photograph, he is quite concerned about something else: the potentially destructive effects of taking the outrage and demands of some students at Harvard Law School – and at universities around the country – too seriously.

These students perceive racism not only on the walls of Harvard Law School but also in its history, culture, curriculum, and personnel. Having asked some of those students to explain “with as much particularity as possible” the sources of their discontent, Randy is largely unconvinced. Some of their “complaints” may have “a ring of validity,” but others “are dubious.” True, their “accusations warrant close examination and may well justify further reforms,” but his primary concern is with the intensity and unintended consequences of their grievances. On the pages of The New York Times, he cautions those youngsters to avoid “exaggerat[ing] the scope of the racism” or “minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.”

Randy suggests that the students are being childishly hyperbolic – losing sight of the big picture on which he and other seasoned observers are focused. But couldn’t the gap between Randy’s reaction and the protesters’ complaints at Harvard Law School and around the country have another source? Is the problem one of oversensitivity or insensitivity? Exaggerated racism or understated racism?

Like many others in the HLS community, we have been engaging with students on these topics extensively for some years. In those discussions, we have noted two very different, but often overlapping and confused, definitions of “racism” in play. We suspect that these profoundly different definitions are at the core of the disagreement between student protesters and the administrations and faculties they are protesting.

The version that is most common and that seems to animate Randy’s op-ed assumes a force that is conspicuous and malevolent: Bull Connor, George Wallace, the KKK, and so on. Racism of that sort is no longer of us or from us. It is foreign – an alien from another time. It is pathology, sickness, and a deviation from the norm. And it is ugly and despised. Like a bloodthirsty dragon emerging from its lair, we would eagerly join forces to chase it down and slay it. In fact, that has been the project of previous generations, to which this group of students should be grateful and deferential. That is why such explicit racism is relatively rare these days and why we need to be painstaking not to mislabel some behavior “racist,” lest some innocent be hurt or some values be compromised.

The student protestors understand that version of racism, but they (and, to be clear, we) are focused on a second, very different version. This type of racism can be hard to see and is often easy to dismiss. It is malleable and insidious. It’s in the architecture of expectations, the ranking of authorities, the sway of circumstance, the nudge of defaults, and the grammar of culture. It hides behind flowery truisms and elaborate self-deceptions. It’s in the norms, customs, precedents, and incentive structures of institutions, jobs, and roles. It’s in the decorative euphemisms for revenue sources, the devilish details of doctrine, the artful camouflaging of motives, the clever rationalization of outcomes, and the river of neural synapses that link some concepts more definitively than others. It’s in the hard-to-see privileging of certain ideas – buffered by unexamined baselines, illusions of neutrality, and elastic categorical boundaries. It’s in the body language of dominance and submission, the harness of manners and professionalism, the limits of suitable conversation topics, and the hierarchy of acceptable emotional reactions. It’s in the traditions that make us “us” (and them “them”) and the selective memory and beneficence those traditions memorialize. It resides in the familiar. It is of us, around us, and within us. This version of racism is in the epistemic, existential, and relational systems that constitute us.

That systems-based understanding of “racism” is therefore deeply unsettling. It sees threads of a translucent web moving within the interstices of structures, rituals, and ideologies to maintain racial oppression and advantage – much of it bolstered, girded, and legitimated by law and legal theory. It connects Laquan MacDonald’s horrible killing to criminal law and housing policies. It connects Freddie Gray’s grisly death to environmental law and local government law. And it connects Laquan MacDonald to Freddie Gray and both to many other victims of police violence who have not become household names. It connects anger at Mizzou and Yale with anger on our campus. It connects the Royall crest to the Confederate flag. It connects Derrick Bell to Kim Crenshaw and Derek Bok to Martha Minow. It connects Harvard Law School and our legal system to the broken world that some students observe in their lives and others read about on the very pages in which Harvard Law faculty admonish students to count their blessings and tread cautiously.  

For the same reasons, it is possible to “see” connections that do not exist or to overstate the significance of some factor that is connected. But the difficulty in identifying the precise causes of systemic racism does not necessarily undermine the conclusion that systemic racism is at work. In the context of our country’s history of racism and of ongoing racial disparities in everything from wealth and education to health and incarceration, our presumption should be to listen carefully to students (and scholars) claiming to identify the sources of systemic racism and to join the effort to understand and alter the confluence of causes. 

There are, then, two very different understandings of what “racism” is. The first focuses on racial animus, and the second, on racial systems. The first type of racism leaps out, while the second fades into the background. The first places blame on the racist individual. The second places responsibility on everyone, and particularly on those who benefit from or control the systems themselves. The law has grown responsive to the first, but ignores and obscures the second.

Randy is not alarmed by the defacement of his photograph, because “the identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined.”  Absent clear evidence of racial animus, there is no racism, by his definition.

When Randy argues that “[r]acism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes,” he again misses the point. Yes, animus-based racism may be strongly opposed, but systemic racism is formidable precisely because it is interwoven in who we are and defended even by those who are sometimes its victims.

When Randy highlights the “brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry” on those same photos, he reveals the gulf between his definition and theirs. Post-it notes, according to Randy, constitute proof that ours is not a racist space, at least not any more racist than other “major institutions in America.”  Yes, those “brightly colored stickers” were certainly soothing and reassuring. It was heartwarming to be reminded of the many people in our community who were upset and willing to help slay the dragon of racial animus. Many felt, as we did, that the stickers were a beautiful moment of solidarity in an otherwise ugly day. Those stickers do not, however, suggest an absence of systemic racism and do not constitute a systemic response.  They were a fleeting effort that could represent the height of collective attention given to the issue of racism in an institution that has, with some important exceptions, been acquiescent in the face of racial inequalities for most of its two hundred years.

From the students’ perspective, Randy is not offering sage counsel to like-minded youth on how to challenge systemic racism more effectively. He is redefining racism and trivializing the experience, insights, and courage of the students who perceive something that he doesn’t. They are saying “this is real, and it matters,” and he and many others are saying “um, perhaps so, but you may be making it up.”  These students are struggling to teach their teachers and their classmates, who require more proof but are not moved to search for it themselves.

Why is that their task? Why are not the profound and obvious racial disparities, connected to systemically racist laws and policies and linked to historical oppression and cultural stereotypes, not enough to shift the burden?

Randy, like many in our community, demands particulars – but those particulars are subject to the defense of individualized exceptions and the motivated exploitation of inevitable ambiguities. Unless students can decisively establish that the photograph defacer was a white member of our community motivated “to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors,” and that those actions were “characteristic,” then we need to “calibrate carefully” and not become too agitated about race and racism at Harvard Law School or elsewhere.

Ambiguity, in this way, is deployed to maintain the status quo and insulate our institutions from any sense of responsibility. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” makes sense for the courtroom, but why shouldn’t our own default be to interrogate our institution and the norms and conventional practices within it?

Students point out that the topic of race and racial inequalities (among other topics) are largely omitted from the basic curriculum. Why is that the norm?  It is true, as Randy emphasizes, that an individual professor’s “decision . . . to focus on a seemingly dry, technical issue rather than . . . race might well reflect a justifiable pedagogical strategy,” but it is also true that the racism baked into law has long been obscured by the sweet frosting of convention and technicalities.  What have those “justifiable pedagogical strategies” done to stem the tide of mass incarceration, to name just one salient manifestation of our broken legal system? Is there no connection? Do we have no responsibility to consider the consequences of our legal system? Does it matter who is teaching the law, and what counts as a “justifiable pedagogical strategy?” Why is there no critical race theorist on our faculty? Why not several?  

Students concerned about systemic racism face a quandary. In the absence of explicit animus their claims about racism go unheard because systemic racism is unseen by those in power, but when they point to examples of explicit racism, such as defacement of photos, hoping to use them as a foothold to discuss the broader problem of racism, they are cautioned to be careful and not to become “unglued” by an episode that may just be an “outlier.” When they respond that it reflects broader systemic forms of racism, they find themselves back where they started, dismissed for failing particularize their allegations and provide evidence of explicit racism. If their understandable frustration manifests in anger, they are further discredited.

Randy encourages “[a]ctivists who are demanding that universities do more to advance racial justice . . . to be encouraged by what has transpired in recent weeks.”  His point is not exactly clear to us, but he seems to be suggesting that student activists should be more or less satisfied with those gains, as if a couple difficult, truncated conversations and the promise of modest reforms have somehow dismantled the profound structural problems that some students have been devoted to exposing and repairing.

Randy’s assertion that students are actually engaged in “self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults,” is similarly skewed. In fact, he may unwittingly be a source of their disempowerment. After all, students are not cowering in response to the racism they perceive. They are not asking for sympathy. They are standing up and insisting that they be heard; they are pointing out what others have denied; they are mobilizing even when their elders tell them not to. They are pushing against powerful institutional forces – including the amplified voices of our faculty and administration.

To recognize subtle forms of power and those who are harmed by it is hardly disempowering. Even identifying as a “victim” of unjust power is not inconsistent with asserting one’s autonomy. In fact, locating the sources and causes of subordination can be a necessary step toward self-determination. We would never advise that Randy embrace “victim status,” but neither would we characterize the students’ complaints as self-diminishing.

The question is not whether these students risk undermining their own power; it is whether institutions like Harvard Law School will dare to take seriously systemic racism (and other forms of injustice), to scrutinize our practices and their effects, and to imagine and implement reforms that go beyond redecorated surfaces. Given this country’s history, this institution’s record, and the current state of our society, why haven’t racism and other sources of profound injustice been at the core of our mission and the center of our curriculum? 

Whether or not defaced photographs are the product of racial animus, there is so much more that Harvard Law School could do to acknowledge, understand, and resist the deep racism that shapes our institutions and our society. We could start that process by giving students the benefit of the doubt and by devoting ourselves to meaningful self-examination and, if necessary, reinvention, led by those who perceive a problem, not by those who still need convincing.  

Jon Hanson & Jacob Lipton

Harvard Divestment Lawsuit Appealed

cropped-divest-harvard

Excerpt from today’s Harvard Crimson:

Students from the environmental activist group Divest Harvard have appealed the dismissal of their lawsuit filed against the University last November, which asks the court to compel Harvard to divest its $37.6 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

The appeal, filed on Oct. 5 to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, is the group’s second attempt to use legal action to prompt Harvard to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Their initial lawsuit was dismissed by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge for lack of standing in a March hearing after Harvard and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office filed motions to dismiss. Superior Court Justice Paul D. Wilson ruled that the students brought their activism to “a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.”

Despite the initial unfavorable ruling, Harvard’s climate activists are adamant about continuing their legal battle. The plaintiffs, who call themselves the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, claim in their 113-page appeal that Harvard has mismanaged its endowment by investing in “abnormally dangerous activities” and allege that Harvard is violating its charitable duties as a nonprofit by failing to divest.

Though the plaintiffs may not introduce new arguments at the appeals stage, according to plaintiff and Harvard Law School student Alice M. Cherry, the brief seeks to argue why the dismissal was unwarranted so that the case can proceed in a lower court.

“It was an error for the Superior Court judge to grant the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” the appeal brief read.

***

This time around, the plaintiffs appear to have more external support to bolster their case. The Animal Legal Defense Fund and James E. Hansen, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, have filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the Harvard students, according to a press release. In addition, the Cambridge City Council has voted unanimously to support the lawsuit.

***

Read the entire article here.

“Race and Social Movement at Harvard Law School: A Retrospective”

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORE_u00rg0&feature=youtu.be%5D

February 12, 2015 – at Harvard Law School – Students for Inclusion Event (“Law School Matters: Reassessing Legal Education Post-Ferguson” Conference) speakers include Dan Coquillette, Kim Crenshaw, Phil Lee, and Victoria White-Mason