19 March 2014

Echoes From A Birmingham Jail (Part One)

Coretta Scott King

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is one of the defining documents of the American anti-segregation movement. Just about anybody who was alive in the early 1960s has heard of it. Dr. King wrote the Letter during a period of incarceration in Birmingham, Alabama. This was one of numerous occasions when civil disobedience on behalf of racial equality landed him behind bars. If the work MLK put into his "Birmingham Jail" essay is any indication, he certainly used his time in lock-up constructively! It was written in response to a public statement by eight White Alabama clergymen who opposed the confrontational tactics he used. They’d denounced him for leading street demonstrations, and argued that other, less disruptive means should be used to combat institutionalized racism.

It should come as no surprise that Dr. King’s oratory was no less powerful on paper than it was in the pulpit. After publication in the 12 June 1963 edition of The Christian Century, his response stirred such a strong reaction that it was distributed more widely. Most people read the text when The Atlantic Monthly reprinted it later that month. The following year, the Birmingham Jail letter became the centerpiece of Dr. King’s best-selling book Why We Can’t Wait.

After the passage of Proposition 8 in California, and many media stories about Black Californians supporting the measure by huge margins, an old debate flared up again: Are Gay Rights civil rights? Are Gay activists being arrogant when they answer that question in the affirmative? And is it wrong to expect President-Elect Barack Obama, an African-American, to identify with LGBT citizens fighting separate-but-equal provisions?

To me, a Black Gay man who has endured both racism and heterosexism, and who sees no difference in the kind of discrimination they generate, this debate has always sounded silly! That said, I find it outrageous that some anti-segregation veterans would argue that Black folk have an exclusive claim to the term civil rights, and that no other movement dare use it. I beg your friggin' pardon? Have these folks never heard of the Women’s Rights movement? The Farm Workers’ movement? The Disabled Rights movement? I don’t recall hearing any objections when those groups adopted the language! I find it even more outrageous that some idiotic Lesbian and Gay pundits lend this argument credence!

In the final decade of her life, Dr. Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, stressed repeatedly that Gay Rights was a civil rights concern! She was the “fierce advocate” President-Elect Obama now claims to be, but unlike him, she walked the talk! In 1998, she called for Civil Rights Movement veterans to support our struggle. In 2003, she personally invited the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to participate in a 40th anniversary commemoration of her husband’s March on Washington speech. In 2004, two years before her untimely death from cancer, she shocked many in the Black community by championing marriage equality (something her colleague, Rev. Joseph Lowery, still refuses to do). Mrs. King also stated publicly that, contrary to what some religious reactionaries might believe, her late husband did have LGBT citizens in mind when he spoke of equal rights for all people!

I knew this was true because an openly Gay man, Bayard Rustin, had been one of Dr. King’s chief organizers. But is an understanding that Gay people deserve equal rights reflected in his writings? While MLK never made any explicit references to LesBiGay Americans (nobody with a national profile spoke openly about us back then! Besides, his enemies were f*g-baiting him behind the scenes), I suspected his language was broad enough that support for LGBT equality could be inferred. I also suspected that a study of his writings would point up strong parallels between racism and heterosexism. My suspicions were confirmed almost immediately; I had to look no further for confirmation than Dr. King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". I found the text conveniently located on the Web, and I’d like to share excerpts with you here; as is my habit, I've edited them slightly for style.

I’m struck by the similarity between the jive talk MLK had to deal with four decades ago, and the jive talk today’s Gay Rights advocates hear. We're currently catching more flak than usual from the Mormon church and other Right Wing religious institutions. Why? Because we've finally summoned up the courage to picket their houses of worship and cry out against their cruel persecution of us! In December, they went so far as to spend thousands of collection plate dollars on a mendacious New York Times ad, portraying themselves as innocent victims of Gay intolerance. (Yiddish lesson for today: Can you say chutzpah?) That ad can be seen as a modern spin on the 1963 White clergymen's statement targeting Dr. King. Our national advocacy organizations have yet to answer this gross distortion of fact with an ad of their own (and they probably won't), but it's instructive to read how MLK responded to the outraged Fundies of his day:

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. 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 . . . Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

I wouldn't presume to estimate how many times equality advocates like the Rev. Mel White and others have approached hetero-supremacist churches, seeking to initiate constructive dialogue. I only know that many such approaches have been made over the years, and every one I've heard about has been rebuffed! The organized Church is firmly entrenched in its philosophy of heterosexual supremacy, a (faulty) Scriptural interpretation that it’s not content to just espouse within its own walls. Oh, no!  It must need spread this pestilence in the public sphere! Worse, it seeks to impose heterosexual supremacy on secular society by targeting the civil liberties of homosexual citizens!

Here's my response to the Fundies' absurd accusations of anti-religious bigotry: If they don't like people objecting to their frequent violations of Church/State separation, they only have themselves to blame! If they think they can expect us to lie still while their feet press down on our backs, they're out of their sanctimonious minds! But that's the kind of clouded thinking that supremacy doctrines produce. Isn't it our duty as compassionate human beings to help them think clearly again?

To be sure, Dr. King had his own beef with the institutional Church. He wrote:

I have been so greatly disappointed with the White church and its leadership . . . 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 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.

I've watched Straight and even some Gay religious folk do the same thing! They're quick to talk about Church unity, which they value over social justice. They evidently want the heads of Lesbian and Gay Christians bowed in shame as well as in worship! They decline to challenge their leadership's hateful proclamations against LBGT identity (yes, I'm talking about the Pope, but certainly not him alone), and they won't lift a finger to correct the Church's distorted Gospel. Have you ever asked questions similar to the ones Dr. King asks in this next excerpt?

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?"

And where were their voices when celebrity pastor Rick Warren likened Gay relationships to pedophilia and incest? When Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. equated homosexual love to ancient temple prostitution? When Bishop Eddie Long called Gay men "f*ggots" from his pulpit? When Rev. Ken Hutcherson joked about dismembering effeminate men? When the Pope characterized Gay and Transgender humanity as a threat to the Earth's survival?

Conservative evangelicals swear they don't engage in hate speech, but I beg to differ: The record speaks for itself! How many of their Sodom and Gomorrah sermons have motivated the fatal beating of a Gay man (or a presumed Gay man, such as happened recently in New York City)? How many of their misquotations from the Apostle Paul's letters have triggered the gang rape of a Lesbian? How many Transsexual teenagers have committed suicide because they validate a defunct Holiness Code that never even applied to Christians? Exactly how many LGBT youngsters are bullied and ostracized every day because of their reckless condemnations? Where is the Church’s support for victims of its own vilification? A vilification that has neither basis nor justification in Jesus Christ's teachings? More important, where is its repentance? There's a terribly urgent need for repentance here!

Dr. King wanted to know what God such cold-hearted "Christians" worshiped. I'd answer his question with one of my own: Can Satan be considered a god? Nearly half a century ago, MLK took critical note of how far the organized Church had strayed from its Gospel, and he warned that a day of reckoning was nigh:

So often the contemporary Church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender 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.

We're living in the twenty-first century now, and there’s been no discernible improvement in the organized Church’s behavior! On the contrary, it’s gotten progressively worse. There’s nary a trace of authenticity left! As Jesus Christ did before him, Dr. King indicted the Orthodoxy in no uncertain terms, but he praised religious leaders who dared to defy their status quo-loving denominations and call for racial justice. His words of affirmation are also balm to Straight allies like Rev. Jimmy Creech and other Gay-affirming clergy who suffer the wrath of Church administrators today:

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.

Speaking of disappointment, you'll get plenty of it from reading Gay pundits! Right now the Gay blogosphere, as well as news-oriented sites like The New York Blade and The Huffington Post are riddled with stern op-eds from self-described “queer” activists and their heterosexual (heterosexist?) sympathizers. These op-eds scold Gay people for daring to want marriage equality, for objecting to hatemonger preachers like Rick Warren at a President's inaugural, for demanding full recognition of their American citizenship! That's not the worst of it, either! In an 11 December 2008 Blade article, Neil Giuliano, the president of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), declared: “It (the equality struggle) isn’t about demanding your Rights.” Incredibly, he saw nothing wrong with making such a spineless statement!

Giuliano and his oh-so-pragmatic colleagues at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund advised us to cease and desist irritating the powers-that-be with explicitly Gay concerns. They said we should concentrate on the economy, health care and other “big tent” issues. If the United States government failed to live up to its promise of equality for all, so be it; our “leadership” couldn't have cared less! According to them, brazen discrimination against LGBT folk can and should be tolerated for the greater good of society.

Dr. King was also interested in society’s greater good. The difference is, there was nothing exclusionary about his concept of society! He believed that discrimination against any minority group threw our justice system out of balance, and that such an imbalance threatened everyone’s Civil Rights:

I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness 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.

Our “fearless” leaders seem to feel that just electing a Democrat to office is enough to set the stage for equality. We’re supposed to throw all our hopes on the Democratic candidate, work like crazy to get him elected, and then hurry up and wait while he attends to every other constituency’s needs but ours! Oh, he’ll eventually get around to Gay Rights, the pragmatists assure us. He just can’t proceed too quickly or aggressively on our behalf, because that would cheese off his other constituents who happen to friggin' hate our guts!

It’s in our best interests to always put his agenda before ours, and if he appears to renege on his promises, God forbid we should make a fuss! In other words, the Gay Rights struggle is a partisan political fight, to be waged according to partisan political wisdom, and no emphasis at all should be placed on the moral considerations that justify it. This strategy is so embarrassingly lame, it’s almost quaint! Dr. King had to confront the same retarded reasoning in 1963. Here’s what he had to say about trusting a political candidate to correct social inequities:

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.

Try substituting the name "Barack Obama" for that of Albert Boutwell, the name "Mr. Bush" for that of Mr. Connor, the label "heterosexists" for segregationists, and the term "Gay Rights" for desegregation. Try it, and you’ll see how Dr. King could easily have been referring to the last Presidential election! Certainly, Wayne Besen and other high-profile Gay activists spoke of Mr. Obama as if his victory were the linchpin that would trigger full LGBT equality. However, when they saw the President-Elect kissing up to enemies like Rick Warren, they had reason to worry about him keeping his promises!

They have yet to learn what MLK understood implicitly: No disenfranchised minority group gets its civil rights served up on a silver platter! You can hire whichever cook you want to cater the dinner party, but if you aren't sitting at the table, you’ll never taste the food! You've got to make reservations at the dinner party. If you can’t make reservations, you've got to disrupt the damn meal! You must make it absolutely clear to the power structure that it can’t dine in peace until your place at the table has been set! Never mind my clumsy dining room metaphors, though. MLK explains the process much better than I do:

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 . . . we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed . . . 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.

“Echoes From A Birmingham Jail” concludes with Part Two.

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