What seems morally and strategically clear to us now was controversial and difficult at the time.
[/pullquote]I recently attended a community meeting where the question of boycott as a political strategy came up. As with most conversations that address the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement (BDS), this one quickly became heated.
I asked whether people experienced the same conflicts around successful boycotts of the past, such as the Montgomery bus boycott or the global boycott of apartheid South Africa. One participant objected to the comparison, explaining that past boycotts were morally clear-cut, where BDS raises both moral and strategic complexities.
The idea that the past is simple where the present is morally and politically tricky got me to thinking. The present rarely feels so transparent; was the past any different?
Dr. King talked about the tactics of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience because they were as controversial in 1965 as they are in our current time.
[/pullquote]Contemporary stories about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s seem in particular to promote this view: that the strategies pursued by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were unimpeachable. This vision of a morally unambiguous past is often used to castigate later developments, such as the emergence of a Black Power movement in 1966. Looking more closely, it is clear that what seems morally and strategically clear to us now was controversial and difficult at the time.
Addressing the American Jewish Congress in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized the centrality of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to the slow dissemination of democracy in U.S. history. He referred to the Boston Tea Party, to the movement for women’s suffrage, and to Henry David Thoreau’s coining of the term “civil disobedience” to describe his act of tax resistance against the Mexican American War for which he served time in jail.
Dr. King heralded the salutary consequences of political protest:
It is an axiom of nonviolent action and democracy that when any group struggles properly and justly to achieve its own rights it enlarges the rights of all. This element is what makes democracy and nonviolent action self-renewing and creative.
Dr. King talked about the tactics of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience in this speech because they were as controversial in 1965 as they are in our current time. Many avowed supporters of the aims of the Civil Rights Movement questioned civil disobedience – as King defined it, the practice of breaking local and municipal regulations in the interest of national morality. A letter written to King in 1968 from a W.B. Blitz of South Milwaukee disdained the planned Poor People’s March, and equated civil disobedience with “simply, breaking the law.”
Clearly, King included boycott in his definition of nonviolent tactics. In 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference explained its decision to boycott the state of Alabama in language that parallels the current call from Palestinian civil society for BDS. Dr. King said:
This leaves us with no alternative but to call on persons of moral conviction and good will throughout the nation to refuse to support and cooperate with the state of Alabama in any economic endeavor until such time as there is concerted effort on the part of the people, the political order and the business community to work together in the establishment of democracy and ending the reign of terror which presently grips the state.
While a sanitized vision of history suggests that choices about strategy were clearer in the past, King’s defense of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action to important allies in the Jewish community points to the tensions surrounding them in 1965. Such decisions are no less volcanic in our own time, as evidenced by the controversies occasioned by all kinds of protests, from nonviolent demonstrations at rallies for Donald Trump to Black Lives Matter protests to the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
King clearly articulated the stakes of such actions. Against the unrelenting violence of immoral regimes, nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience oppose cogent moral truths about equality and human dignity. Inspired by both Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi, King regarded “non-cooperation with evil” as a moral obligation. Following this tradition, activists in contemporary movements, from Black Lives Matter to BDS to the comparatively new If Not Now put themselves on the line to advance their visions of liberation from unjust regimes. These movements use the tactic of nonviolent action, in the words of If Not Now, “to create urgency around moral crises and catalyze massive changes in the mainstream.”
King and other civil rights leaders were often chastised for pursuing “undemocratic” or “un-American” activities.
[/pullquote]Challenging the status quo, nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience often occasion controversy. King and other civil rights leaders were often chastised for pursuing “undemocratic” or “un-American” activities. In his letter, Blitz warned King about association with Black Power activists, whom he described as “rabid radicals.” Other letters to civil rights leaders characterized activists as “thugs” and “trash.” Such racially charged epithets sparked controversy last spring in when the word “thug” was used to condemn protesters in Baltimore after the funeral of Freddie Gray. These often racially charged terms assign the violence of white supremacy not to the regime in power, but to the actions of those protesting it.
Critics of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience often council patience and moderation. They warn of the risks of alienating those in power. Writing to Dr. King in 1968, Alice Brainerd of Denver warned that “civil disobedience and non-cooperation” might undermine the work of politicians trying to create jobs programs for Black youth. Similarly, in a letter protesting the recent adoption of a resolution endorsing divestment by the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Milwaukee Jewish Community Relations Council castigated the vote as representing “an unnuanced world view and simplistic actions.”
Questioning the way things are is meant to provoke controversy: that is how oppressive regimes maintain power.
[/pullquote]But the strength of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience is precisely that these tactics hold up immoral regimes to the light of collective moral scrutiny. These are not simple solutions to complex problems: no one enters into the serious work of collective protest lightly. Such tactics are useful in drawing public attention to the exigencies of injustice.
Social movements respond to traumatic losses by asserting a collective, moral response. Opposing injustice is always difficult, in large part because unjust regimes have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Questioning the way things are is meant to provoke controversy: that is how oppressive regimes maintain power.
We publicly idealize Martin Luther King, Jr. now, forgetting the vituperation and reprisals that he and other civil rights leaders encountered. Then as now, the work of change is often controversial, requiring both commitment and courage.