Arundhati Roy and Martin Luther King

By Anjum Altaf

My post in support of Arundhati Roy’s position on the rights of Adivasis had drawn an analogy with the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the US. The point I made was that in the latter case the political spectrum offered a range of options from the very extreme to the very moderate and that this facilitated convergence on an alternative in the middle of the spectrum. With this in mind I asked why the spectrum was so sparse in India with Roy almost being a lone voice easy to dismiss by the mainstream as extreme and unrealistic.

We still don’t have an answer to the question but the comments on the post made me go back and look at some of the source documents pertaining to the civil rights movement in the US. The most relevant for our purposes is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written in 1963 in response to those who criticized his actions as “unwise and untimely.”

This is a document that needs to be read in full and I would urge readers to do so (the link is provided at the end of this post). All the points that were raised in our discussion are addressed here with reference to a real-life instance of injustice. Here I extract some of the key points that bear on the theme of our debate.

  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  • 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.
  • In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made…  As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.
  • You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action 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.
  • We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
  • I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
  • 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?
  • I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency… The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence… I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.
  • Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever… If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history… So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

We can now go back to the issues raised in our discussion of Adivasi rights in India and look at our positions afresh.

The complete text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail is here. It was written in response to this call for unity.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail was included in Dr. Kings’s 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait. Here is a review of the book by J Hornsby published in 1964. I found two items of particular interest in the review. First a comment by Dr. King’s assistant: “We have to have a crisis to bargain with.” Second, Dr. King’s conclusion that segregation was on its deathbed: “The only imponderable is the question of how costly they will make the funeral.”


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