20. December 2012 10:14
by Tammi Sharpe
‘Wait!’ With this one word, in his famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in March 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King captures so much of the historical struggle for racial equality in the United States (US). As far back as the founding of the US, the framers of the Constitution indirectly made a request to slaves to “wait.” By incorporating compromises into the Constitution, the framers allowed for the continued practice of slavery notwithstanding the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” The contradiction of the situation was not lost on the founders. Thomas Jefferson, a framer and the author of the Declaration of Independence, said: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” He also was not naïve on the gravity of this human right violation: "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” His words make me query, if not then and not him, when and whom did he think would resolutely tackle slavery?
It was not the next generation. It took a few generations and a war for decisive action to be taken. President Lincoln, by issuing in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation, decided de-jure for the nation that securing freedom for some four million people, about 13 per-cent of the population, was vital to the future of this nation. The adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by the U.S. Congress further endorsed this view, substantively changing the legal framework of this nation. Abolitionists, who assiduously labored to rectify the human rights violation that was slavery, saw this as a great leap forward.
Yet, genuine freedom and full citizenship were still not realized. Instead, segregation, denial of voting rights, lack of access to justice, and forced labor supplanted slavery. A freed black was not even physically secure: lynching occurred with impunity and men were arbitrarily arrested. In response, civil rights advocates replaced the abolitionists in the courts, in the media, in the Federal and State Legislatures, and in the street lobbying for change. Some successes were realized but not until the mid-1960s were practical measures put in place to protect the human rights articulated in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments for African Americans. Dr. King’s “wait” captures the justified frustration and outrage of African Americans being asked for centuries to wait for some of the most basic human rights and dignity as a human being.
“Wait” also illustrates the complexity of upholding human rights. Dr. King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as political and legal structures of segregation were gradually being eradicated but when their termination was far from assured. He addressed his letter to the white clergy of Birmingham. This clergy was sympathetic to the cause but desired for protests to be halted to allow for a new local government to be instated. This can be viewed as a judicious request from their perspective. New government officials and the structure within which they sat represented a sort of coup d’état: a petition calling for a referendum on the type of local government structure had been successfully filed; the referendum had passed and new government officials, who were not rigid segregationist, had been elected. The clergy wrote to Dr. King with the belief that this new power structure opened up new political and legal opportunities to overturn segregation. This change of government structure was symbolic of considerable social upheaval within the white community when it came to perceptions of the legitimacy of segregation.
“Wait,” while inadvertently, also captures the issue of trust and miscommunication between the writer and the receiver and between the larger communities of which they were members. As indicated by the long history of the struggle for racial equality, asking to further “wait” could be interpreted by those oppressed as insensitivity to the scale of their suffering for centuries. At the same time, the inability of the nation to rectify the paradox between the founding equality principles of this country and the overt practice of inequality throughout these centuries signifies the importance of the general public’s notions of legitimate laws and practices as well as the enormity of changing perceptions of what is legitimate. This appears to have been the reality with which the clergy was grappling. Reportedly, they were too ill at ease over the letter to have responded.
As history shows, protests in downtown Birmingham in the Spring of 1963 were not halted. While not immediately, they were successful in overturning segregation. What we cannot resolutely know is whether passivism could have also worked.