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Civility: Serving White Interests Forever

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The historian Thomas Sugrue notes how “civility” has long been used by conservative forces against people of color and bemoans how even Democratic Party leaders fall into the trap of promoting it in the face of fascism.

This sugarcoating of protest has a long history. During the last major skirmish in the civility wars two decades ago, when President Bill Clinton held a national conversation about race to dampen tempers about welfare reform, affirmative action, and a controversial crime bill, the Yale law professor Stephen Carter argued that civil rights protesters were “loving” and “civil in their dissent against a system willing and ready to destroy them.” King, argued Carter, “understood that uncivil dialogue serves no democratic function.”

But in fact, civil rights leaders, while they did believe in the power of nonviolence, knew that their success depended on disruption and coercion as much — sometimes more — than on dialogue and persuasion. They knew that the vast majority of whites who were indifferent or openly hostile to the demands of civil rights would not be moved by appeals to the American creed or to bromides about liberty and justice for all. Polite words would not change their behavior.

For King and his allies, the key moment was spring 1963, a contentious season when polite discourse gave way to what many called the “Negro Revolt.” That year, the threat of disruption loomed large. King led a mass demonstration in Birmingham, Ala., deliberately planned to provoke police violence. After the infamous police chief Bull Connor sicced police dogs on schoolchildren and arrested hundreds, including King, angry black protesters looted Birmingham’s downtown shopping district. Protesters against workplace discrimination in Philadelphia and New York deployed increasingly disruptive tactics, including blockading construction sites, chaining themselves to cranes, and clashing with law enforcement officials. Police forces around the United States began girding for what they feared was an impending race war.

Whites both North and South, moderate and conservative, continued to denounce advocates of civil rights as “un-American” and destructive throughout the 1960s. Agonized moderates argued that mass protest was counterproductive. It would alienate potential white allies and set the goal of racial equality back years, if not decades. Conservatives more harshly criticized the movement. National Review charged “King and his associates” with “deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagogy, they have been cracking the ‘cake of custom’ that holds us together.” By 1966, more than two-thirds of Americans disapproved of King.

King aimed some of his harshest words toward advocates of civility, whose concerns aligned with the hand-wringing of many of today’s politicians and pundits. From his Birmingham jail cell, King wrote: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action’.” King knew that whites’ insistence on civility usually stymied civil rights.

Those methods of direct action — disruptive and threatening — spurred the Kennedy administration to move decisively. On June 11, the president addressed the nation on the “fires of frustration and discord that are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand.” Kennedy, like today’s advocates of civility, was skeptical of “passionate movements.” He criticized “demonstrations, parades and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives,’ and argued, “it is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets.” But he also had to put out those fires. He tasked his staff with drafting what could eventually become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dialogue was necessary but far from sufficient for passage of civil rights laws. Disruption catalyzed change.

But according to Republicans, Martin Luther King supported their contemporary policy agenda!

In all seriousness, our popular mythology about civil rights that has completely erased the conflict in favor of a cheap narrative of Americans coming together thanks to MLK turning the other cheek and wanting his black children to play with white children creates very great damage to us today. The civil rights movement was not like that at all, whites, including northern whites, were just as opposed to black activism as they are today, and King was criticized in the same ways that BLM activists are today, not to mention more radical factions of the black freedom struggle.

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