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For MLK Day

January 19, 2015

A striking thing about the Civil Rights Movement was that the activists were not simply acting to put pressure on their government and society to meet their demands — though they were certainly doing that. They were in a profound way enacting what they wanted. They were taking it. Because what they were demanding was to be treated as free and equal citizens, and what they did was to act like free and equal citizens. By speaking, sitting, gathering, marching, boycotting, registering to vote, going to school. It was not a supplication but a dare. Not “will you permit us?” but “will you stop us?” They shifted the issue on to their opponents, the ones with the guns and clubs and dogs, the shrill shouters with their mean bitter faces twisted with hate. And many white Americans who may not have cared so much about what was to them a mostly invisible and mundane deprivation of black Americans cared a lot more about seeing them brutalized on their TV’s.

A political scientist might describe a protest movement in terms of a group of people united by certain policy preferences who make a public display to draw attention to their issues, and possibly create a enough of nuisance to compel the powers-that-be to relent (though that takes some doing and can easily backfire). A certain kind of political philosopher might describe it in terms of people stepping out of their private lives into the public sphere, seizing their communal identity as citizens of a polity, and so elevating themselves into a more meaningful existence. I think part of what made the Civil Rights Movement so special, helped give it such power and grandeur, was how those two elements were united within it. The actions were the issue, the issue of whether or not these people would be acknowledged as equal citizens. This is not normally the case, and so similar demonstrations tend to be far less compelling. Like PR stunts. There is the action and there is the issue, maybe both significant things, but the only thing to connect the two are the exact words on the demonstrators signs and in their chants.

(As an addendum, I would also say that CRM demanded respect for the dignity of black Americans, and did itself exemplify dignity. And Martin Luther King, along with his other gifts, had a genius for dignity, and was very conscious of it. It seems like there has been a lot more genius for dignity among blacks than whites in this country, presumably because only among them has it so often required genius to keep dignity.)

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