“The problem with Stanford activism,” by Neil Chaudhary, caught my attention after sitting in on an informal discussion about the article’s inability to see the positive connections between the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s and the activism occurring on campus today.
After taking the time to read the article myself, I was further convinced that the way the Civil Right’s Movement is taught and retold is used as propaganda to perpetuate inaction and belittle activists bold enough to continue in the spirit of the movement.
The activism of today is the child of the Civil Rights Movement moderates and conservatives heavily exalt as the model for activism. In fact, dissenters of this movement serve as co-opters of the Civil Rights Movement. They ignore that the Civil Rights Movement lived on the spirits and momentum of agitators and those who would accept nothing but freedom.
Martin Luther King did not always have the support of the moderates or even other activists within the movement. King was only one actor of many who each had their own methods and ideologies about change and liberation. King was often in conversation activists who did just as much if not more for the movement. These key actors were the younger activists involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the legendary Diane Nash.
King was not the only activist invested in the Civil Rights Movement, and he is not the only actor who made change happen. It took a collective effort, and they all did not agree with each other. Additionally, they all did not agree with him.
Like the conversations of today, many thought King was simply going about justice the wrong way.
Allies and opponents included.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King responded to a white moderate brethren of faith who called his actions “unwise and untimely.” In it, King highlights the fact that methods of action are criticized more than the circumstances that brought them about. In other words, they were worried about how King was responding to injustice, with direct actions and civil disobedience, rather than worrying about the actual injustice, racism and Jim Crow.
“You may well ask ‘Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t [dialogue] a better path’….Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” King states.
This conversation sounds eerily familiar.
There are always going to be people who disagree with methods and rhetoric, but it is essential to examine the position of those who have so much to say against the actions.
The men who were telling King to wait and to chose other methods did not understand that people were dying.
People are dying.
Communities are in states of emergency fearing death at every traffic stop, and there are people who are policing rhetoric and methods?
Activism is not a monolith. Just as Martin Luther King was critiqued by other activists and advocates, activists today have critiques and opinions about actions. However, there is an understanding of the need for direct action and therefore agitation, and activism is not always clean.
It isn’t always perfect. It isn’t always digestible. It isn’t always for the moderate.
This is why one must not confuse the role of the ally with the role of the activist. The activist is an advocate for the community and the needs and wants of the community they are fighting for come first. The ally tries to make their community care. Each uses their position to accomplish unique work.
It isn’t always the role of the activist to make those who do not understand listen.
The activist puts their community first. The ally can organize their own community and create meaningful dialogue that is useful for their audience.
The activist does not always have to convince communities why their issues are important. They seek the most effective route to change.
King believed that the greatest obstacle on the path to freedom was more than the openly racist White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan. Our admiration for his legacy may dictate which quotes end up in history textbooks, but the reality is that King also called the white moderate out on standing in the way of justice.
“The white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
Stop telling activists what they need to do.