Herb Rothschild Jr.: King’s provocation

Posted Jan. 17, 2015 at 2:00 AM
Updated Feb 12, 2015 at 6:20 PM

The South in which I grew up prided itself on its courtesy. The “Howdy” and “Y’all come back and see us” did make daily interactions more gentle than, say, in New Jersey. But our good manners were a patina, one it didn’t take much to scratch. A mere reference to Jim Crow would do it. Then the ugly reality would surface. The genteel South was the most violent region of the country.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, penned on April 16, 1963, was prompted by a statement by eight local white clergymen published in the city’s daily newspaper. Among their arguments calling for an end to the nonviolent direct action campaign in which Dr. King and others were engaged was that it created tension and occasioned violence. Racial justice, they argued, should be pursued only through negotiations and in the courts.
Dr. King’s response exposed the ways their arguments for civility were actually a defense of endemic violence. In the course of doing so, he distinguished the nonviolent pro-actions of the civil rights movement from the violent reactions of segregationists. What I wish to highlight is his unapologetic acknowledgement that the pro-actions were intentionally provocative.
“Nonviolent direct action,” he wrote, “seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
A bit further down he writes, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is … 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.”
All people committed to peace pay homage to Dr. King, but many of us don’t sufficiently appreciate what a warrior he was and how much turmoil his campaigns created. As the MLK holiday nears, it’s well that we should, because our posthumous domestication of him denies him the enduring influence he should exercise.
If one’s idea of peacemaking is confined to encouraging dialogue and respectful listening, then one mustn’t claim King or Gandhi or Mandela as one’s exemplars. Not that they would oppose the use of such important tools of peacemaking. It’s just that they kept their eyes on the prize. The prize is nothing less than shalom/salaam.
Peace House wrestled with these differing concepts of peacemaking as we decided to intensify our work for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. We knew we would create disturbance close to home. Yet an unruffled surface here belies the terrible violence there. And that issue is no different than the other struggles for peace and justice in which we engage. For all of them, “constructive, nonviolent tension … is necessary for growth.”
Tomorrow at North Medford High School, the Martin Luther King Jr. Task Force will present Peace House with an I Have A Dream Award. We are deeply honored that our understanding of peace work is perceived as aligned with Dr. King’s.
Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.

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