Sunday, April 30, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 30: Why time doesn't solve social and political problems

"We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right." - Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963)

For the last of this year's Confederate "Heritage" Month posts, I've picked an incident that illustrates a narrative strategy used in supporting slavery that proved very enduring.

It comes from William Cost Johnson, who in 1840 was a Whig Congressman from Maryland, an Upper South slave state. William Freehling in The Road to Disunion, Vol 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (1990) writes about Johnson's position in one part of the debate about the "gag rule," which Congress adopted to decline formal consideration of antislavery petitions from constituents at that time (specifically, the petitions were tabled indefinitely):

Johnson charged abolitionists with delaying "abolition in Maryland at least a century." Without outside agitation, inside reformers might "have gradually and quietly terminated" the temporary evil. He could not say how much longer Africans would now be "held in servitude." But he could say that black savages, arriving in America "little superior to the orangutan," had "become civilized, humanized, and christianized" under· the Domestic Institution. "Philanthropists" were sending back to the Dark Continent "a changed being, with a knowledge of law, moral, and religious duty." Someday, returning ex-slaves may "change the nature of their own wild race at home, and make all Africa a land of civil and religious liberty."
If you protest against a social evil, you only make it worse!

Over a century later, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a contemporary version of this argument (Letter from a Birmingham Jail 04/16/1963). That letter was " was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South." (Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Letter From Birmingham Jail' The Atlantic 04/16/2013). King wrote:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." ...

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. ...

Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation. ...

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. ...

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity. ...

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. [my emphasis]
After the Civil War, the Lost Cause defenders of past slavery argued in retrospect that if the "fanatical" Abolitionists had not pushed to end slavery, the magic force of time would have ended slavery peacefully and perhaps even sooner. That was nonsense, of course.

For those who feel some stake in an existing order that is oppressive, or are deeply committed to maintaining their indifference, demands for change will always come too soon.

Freehling also notes that Johnson was nominally an opponent to slavery, favoring the gradual emancipation approach to end slavery in the State of Maryland, by state action. But he was also very much a defender of the pro-slavery states' rights position. And, like the gradual emancipation in earlier years, around the time of the 1920 Missouri Compromise we previously discussed, he was also a supporter of colonization, i.e., getting even free blacks out of Maryland and (presumably) all of the US. In the 1840 Congressional debate from which he is quoted above, Johnson was arguing in favor of a more strict gag rule against antislavery petitions.

And the pro- and antislavery narratives were evolving quickly. And as we've seen in earlier posts, the Missouri crisis of 1819-20 marked an important turning point in that evolution. Thomas Jefferson's long-held gradual emancipation position in 1820 could still represent a serious antislavery position, however inadequate it was. In 1840, it looked a lot different. Although it may well be that William Cost Johnson sincerely opposed slavery in Maryland just as he sincerely wanted no black people remaining there.

It's also worth noting that slavery was abolished in Maryland was abolished in 1864, when it had been a pro-Union slave state up until that time in the Civil War. Like the other states where slavery was still legal in 1840, it took the Civil War to abolish it.

That gradual emancipation that Johnson claimed in 1840 would inevitably come in time never came. As King put it, "time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. ... Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation."

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