Let Justice Roll Down
As a former Secretary of State of Ohio and as an appellate judge seeking election to the state's highest court, I want to share these words as you begin your weekend.
From 1961 to 1966, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote an annual essay for The Nation, (the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States, covering progressive political and cultural news, opinion and analysis,) on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. The words in the article he wrote for the March 15, 1965 issue of The Nation practically leapt from the page for me when I read it.
I'm sharing with you select passages from Dr. King's article that squarely address where we are and the stakes we face in electing our President and a state supreme court this fall, the only candidate races on the statewide ballot in Ohio.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here is what Dr. King wrote:
When 1963 came to a close, more than a few skeptical voices asked what substantial progress had been achieved through the demonstrations that had drawn more than a million Negroes into the streets. By the close of 1964, the pessimistic clamor was stilled by the music of major victories. Taken together, the two years marked a historic turning point for the civil rights movement; in the previous century no comparable change for the Negro had occurred. Now, even the most cynical acknowledged that at Birmingham, as at Concord, a shot had been fired that was heard around the world.
* * *
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and with the defeat of Barry Goldwater, there was widespread expectation that barriers would disintegrate with swift inevitability. This easy optimism could not survive the first test. In the hard-core states of the South, while some few were disposed to accommodate, the walls remained erect and reinforced. That was to be expected, for the basic institutions of government, commerce, industry and social patterns in the South all rest upon the embedded institution of segregation. Change is not accomplished by peeling off superficial layers when the causes are rooted deeply in the heart of the organism.
* * *
Those who expected a cheap victory in a climate of complacency were shocked into reality by Selma and Marion, Ala. In Selma, the position was implacable resistance. At one point, ten times as many Negroes were in jail as were on the registration rolls. Out of 15,000 eligible to vote, less than 350 were registered.
Selma involves more than disenfranchisement. Its inner texture reveals overt and covert forms of terror and intimidation–that uniquely Southern form of existence for Negroes in which life is a constant state of acute defensiveness and deprivation.
* * *
This is white supremacist arrogance and Negro servility possible only in an atmosphere where the Negro feels himself so isolated, so hopeless, that he is stripped of all dignity. And as if they were in competition to obliterate the United States Constitution within Alabama’s borders state troopers only a few miles away clubbed and shot Negro demonstrators in Marion.
Are demonstrations of any use, some ask, when resistance is so unyielding? Would the slower processes of legislation and law enforcement ultimately accomplish greater results more painlessly? Demonstrations, experience has shown, are part of the process of stimulating legislation and law enforcement. The federal government reacts to events more quickly when a situation of conflict cries out for its intervention. Beyond this, demonstrations have a creative effect on the social and psychological climate that is not matched by the legislative process. Those who have lived under the corrosive humiliation of daily intimidation are imbued by demonstrations with a sense of courage and dignity that strengthens their personalities. Through demonstrations, Negroes learn that unity and militance have more force than bullets. They find that the bruises of clubs, electric cattle prods and fists hurt less than the scars of submission. And segregationists learn from demonstrations that Negroes who have been taught to fear can also be taught to be fearless. Finally, the millions of Americans on the sidelines learn that inhumanity wears an official badge and wields the power of law in large areas of the democratic nation of their pride.
* * *
Our movement has from the earliest days of SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] adhered to a method which uses nonviolence in a special fashion. We have consistently operated on the basis of total community involvement. It is manifestly easier to initiate actions with a handful of dedicated supporters, but we have sought to make activists of all our people, rather than draw some activists from the mass.
* * *
. . . when we marched it was as a community, not as a small and unimpressive, if symbolic, assemblage. The charge that we were outside agitators, devoid of support from contented local Negroes, could not be convincing when the procession of familiar local faces could be seen block after block in solid array.
The second element in our tactics after Montgomery was to formulate demands that covered varied aspects of Negro life. If voting campaigns or lunch-counter sit-ins appeared central in press reports, they were but a part of our broader aims. In Birmingham, employment opportunity was a demand pressed as forcefully as desegregation of public facilities. In Selma, our four points encompass voting rights, employment opportunities, improved interracial communication and paved streets in the Negro neighborhoods. The last demand may appear to Northerners to lack some of the historic importance of voting rights. To the Southern Negro the fact that anyone can identify where the ghetto begins by noting where the pavement ends is one of the many offensive experiences in his life. The neighborhood is degraded to degrade the person in it.
* * *
The Civil Rights Act was expected by many to suffer the fate of the Supreme Court decisions on school desegregation. In particular, it was thought that the issue of public accommodations would encounter massive defiance. But this pessimism overlooked a factor of supreme importance. The legislation was not a product of charity of white America for a supine black America, nor was it the result of enlightened leadership by the judiciary. This legislation was first written in the streets. The epic thrust of the millions of Negroes who demonstrated in 1963 in hundreds of cities won strong white allies to the cause. Together, they created a “coalition of conscience” which awoke a hitherto somnolent Congress. The legislation was polished and refined in the marble halls of Congress, but the vivid marks of its origins in the turmoil of mass meetings and marches were on it, and the vigor and momentum of its turbulent birth carried past the voting and insured substantial compliance.
* * *
Demonstrations educate the onlooker as well as the participant, and education requires repetition. That is one reason why they have not outlived their usefulness. Furthermore, it would be false optimism to expect ready compliance to the new law everywhere. The Negro’s weapon of non-violent direct action is his only serviceable tool against injustice. He may be willing to sheath that sword but he has learned the wisdom of keeping it sharp.
Yet new times call for new policies. Negro leadership, long attuned to agitation, must now perfect the art of organization. The movement needs stable and responsible institutions in the communities to utilize the new strength of Negroes in altering social customs. In their furious combat to level walls of segregation and discrimination, Negroes gave primary emphasis to their deprivation of dignity and personality. Having gained a measure of success they are now revealed to be clothed, by comparison with other Americans, in rags. They are housed in decaying ghettoes and provided with a ghetto education to eke out a ghetto life. Thus, they are automatically enlisted in the war on poverty as the most eligible combatants. Only when they are in full possession of their civil rights everywhere, and afforded equal economic opportunity, will the haunting race question finally be laid to rest.
Therefore, when the American people saw before them a clear choice between a future of progress with racial justice or stagnation with ancient privilege, they voted in landslide proportions for justice. President Johnson made a creative contribution by declining to mute this issue in the campaign.
The election of President Johnson, whatever else it might have been, was also an alliance of Negro and white for common interests. Perceptive Negro leadership understands that each of the major accomplishments in 1964 was the product of Negro militancy on a level that could mobilize and maintain white support. Negroes acting alone and in a hostile posture toward all whites will do nothing more than demonstrate that their conditions of life are unendurable, and that they are unbearably angry. But this has already been widely dramatized. On the other hand, whites who insist upon exclusively determining the time schedule of change will also fail, however wise and generous they feel themselves to be. A genuine Negro-white unity is the tactical foundation upon which past and future progress depends.
* * *
It is an irony of American history that Negroes have been oppressed and subjected to discrimination by many whose economic circumstances were scarcely better than their own. The social advantages which softened the economic disabilities of Southern poor whites are now beginning to lose some of their attractions as these whites realize what material benefits are escaping them.
* * *
To climb the economic ladder, Negro and white will have to steady it together, or both will fall.
* * *
The fluidity and instability of American public opinion on questions of social change is very marked. There would have been no civil rights progress, nor a nuclear test-ban treaty, without resolute Presidential leadership. The issues which must be decided are momentous. The contest is not tranquil and relaxed. The search for a consensus will tend to become a quest for the least common denominator of change. In an atmosphere devoid of urgency the American people can easily be stupefied into accepting slow reform, which in practice would be inadequate reform. “Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream,” said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down.
A consensus orientation is understandably attractive to a political leader. His task is measurably easier if he is merely to give shape to widely accepted programs. He becomes a technician rather than an innovator. Past Presidents have often sought such a function. President Kennedy promised in his campaign an executive order banning discrimination in housing. This substantial progressive step, he declared, required only “a stroke of the pen.” Nevertheless, he delayed execution of the order long after his election on the ground that he awaited a “national consensus.” President Roosevelt, facing the holocaust of an economic crisis in the early thirties, attempted to base himself on a consensus with the N.R.A.; and generations earlier, Abraham Lincoln temporized and hesitated through years of civil war, seeking a consensus before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the end, however, none of these Presidents fashioned the program which was to mark him as historically great by patiently awaiting a consensus. Instead, each was propelled into action by a mass movement which did not necessarily reflect an overwhelming majority. What the movement lacked in support was less significant than the fact that it had championed the key issue of the hour. President Kennedy was forced by Birmingham and the tumultuous actions it stimulated to offer to Congress the Civil Rights Bill. Roosevelt was impelled by labor, farmers and small-businessmen to commit the government in revolutionary depth to social welfare as a constituent stimulus to the economy. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation under the pressure of war needs. The overwhelming national consensus followed their acts; it did not precede them.
* * *
Similarly today, the Negro of the South requires in the first place the opportunity to exercise elementary rights and to be shielded from terror and oppression by reliable, alert government protection. He should not have to stake his life, his home or his security merely to enjoy the right to vote. On the other hand, in the North, he already has many basic rights and a fair measure of state protection. There, his quest is toward a more significant participation in government, and the restructuring of his economic life to end ghetto existence.
Very different tactics will be required to achieve these disparate goals. Many of the mistakes made by Northern movements may be traced to the application of tactics that work in Birmingham but produce no results in Northern ghettoes. Demonstrations in the streets of the South reveal the cruel fascism underlacing the social order there. No such result attends a similar effort in the North. However, rent strikes, school boycotts, electoral alliances summon substantial support from Negroes, and dramatize the specific grievances peculiar to those communities.
* * *
With the maturation of the civil rights movement, growing out of the struggles of 1963 and 1964, new tactical devices will emerge. The most important single imperative is that we continue moving forward with the indomitable spirit of those two turbulent years. It is worth recalling the admonition of Napoleon (he was thinking of conquest, but what he said was true also of constructive movements): “In order to have good soldiers, a nation must always be at war.”
Each of us must do our part to ensure people have ready access to the voting franchise for this fall's election. With this tool we can elect and expect from our President, one who will demonstrate "resolute presidential leadership" to help fashion the reforms for a new national consensus that we are one nation, undivided--equal in justice and opportunity. I stand ready to do my part. Tomorrow is our chance to begin that journey together.
Thinking of you today and always and lifting up our brothers and sisters for whom equality must be our calling and our mission.
Judge Jennifer Brunner
To read the full article in The Nation, you can find it here.