In April 1963, Martin Luther King and many of his fellow Birmingham direct actionists sat in jail. They had expected such a response from the segregationist power structure. Unfortunately, it was also predictable that they’d be hearing criticism and condemnation from most of the people who in theory should have been on their side. King seems to have anticipated this, as he was able to respond immediately with an eloquent refutation and exposure of this collaborationist position. This was the great Letter From Birmingham Jail
Here MLK faces those who object to demonstrations, to boycotts, sit-ins, civil disobedience in general, indeed to anything but the most tepid (and “civil”) criticism which is guaranteed to remain impotent. He opens up with their immortal objection to any real resistance, that it’s “unwise and untimely”. Today this could be the signature of every media hack, Democrat partisan, and lukewarm “progressive”.
But the unfortunate truth, as MLK knew, is that true protest is always timely and wise in the broadest sense. As for the specific timing, a human being who wants humanity to have a future must recognize when the time has come, and when today is the day. Our task today isn’t exactly the same as that of the Civil Rights Movement. They sought a specific set of reforms. They were up against an obsolete set of attitudes and practices which were mostly an embarrassment to power, and which weren’t germane to power’s propagation. (Indeed, as we’ve seen, the end of segregation was put to good political use by corporatism; it has helped render racially astroturfed divide-and-conquer even more insidious and harder to counteract. This is of course the crime of the corporations and the rich, and the fault of malingering racists themselves, not of desegregation. But we should still be aware of this history of corporatism.)
Today we need nothing less than to abolish GMOs, which comprise a technological and organizational offensive against humanity. We need to build the alternative to the corporate agriculture and food system, counter to it where possible, in resistance to it where necessary. This is a permanent necessity, whose goal is the eventual complete replacement of this world of crime and malice by a world of democracy and universal prosperity. Judging from his activist trajectory, we can justly expect that if MLK were here today he’d see the need for this movement. Before his death he was already seeing the need to expand the civil rights movement to encompass labor issues in general and the war. I doubt it’s a coincidence that after all those years of death threats, they actually killed him only when he wanted to make the movement more comprehensive, more of a fundamental criticism of the basic structures themselves.
We’ll constantly be expressing the need for total abolition, and along the way we’ll probably encounter many opportunities for the kind of direct action and civil disobedience campaigns King so masterfully led. Two examples are direct action against GMO plantings, and civil disobedience on behalf of the Community Food movement which the corporate system is trying to repress as an economic and political threat to its domination. Up against these, we’ll no doubt also often encounter the same sort of opposition, including the liberal opposition he specifically addresses in this Letter.
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
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.
That could be the response to every apologist for the crimes of every system, including the extra crimes it commits trying to preserve its ill-gotten wealth and power. It goes for everyone who thinks a paper cut suffered by an elite criminal is worse than the robbery and murder of thousands of innocents.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.
1. There can be no doubt at all about the injustice.
There’s many reasons to fight to abolish Monsanto and GMOs. They’re agriculturally and environmentally totalitarian. They inevitably contaminate all other crops and the environment, and accelerate soil, water, air, and habitat destruction. They accelerate the same climate change which is cited as one of the reasons corporate ag must allegedly provide “new technology”. The more that GMOs are field tested and commercialized, i.e. the longer they exist at all, the worse this contamination shall become, and the more we’ll pass points-of-no-return where the contamination shall become significantly malign and irreversible.
They’re economically and politically totalitarian. The GMO cartel is increasing what’s already a non-competitive monopoly concentration in the seed sector. It aggressively uses this position to build horizontal and vertical monopoly power, enforce its dictates up and down the food production and distribution chains, drive non-GM seed varieties out of the market (and, more and more, out of existence), greatly jack up seed prices, force obscenely lopsided “contracts” upon farmers, persecute farmers with harassment, thuggery, and lawsuits, and get governments to enact repressive seed laws intended to escalate and accelerate this whole process.
That’s just one way in which the GMO cartel has seized control of governments around the world. While governments are naturally controlled by corporate power, the kind of control being exercised by the GMO corporations, and the unique threat to humanity and the Earth posed by such corporate control over agriculture and food, render this form of corporate control over government particularly nefarious. People can try to argue about the implication of corporate power where it comes to other sectors, but there can be no argument here – humanity must purge this clear and present danger to our freedom, our democracy, and our literal survival.
GMOs also present a clear and present danger to our health. All independent studies, and even almost all of the corporations’ own rigged studies, find reason for concern or alarm. The genetic engineering process itself, and the massive glyphosate residues in our food and water, wreck our microbiome (our internal gastrointestinal microbial community with which our bodies cooperate for mutual health), cause gastrointestinal inflammation which leads to every kind of disease, trigger escalations in allergies, asthma, autism, and every other kind of autoimmune disease, cause cancer, organ damage, infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects. These are just the best documented effects. Glyphosate-tolerant crops are also nutritionally denuded, and eating the processed foods made from them merely adds to the nutritional deficiency already inherent in diets centered on such “foods”, and the many diseases this can cause or exacerbate.
The most amazing thing is how all this is over such a pathetic, worthless product. GMOs are crap products which don’t work for any purpose which could actually help people. Their yield is poor, no improvement over non-GM conventional agriculture; they require far more pesticides than conventional ag; by helping weeds and insect pests build resistance to pesticides, they generate superweeds and superbugs against themselves, uncontrollable by the same poisons which were supposed to be the reasons for having these GMOs in the first place; the ”special” GMOs – those for drought resistance, vitamin fortification, nitrogen-fixing, etc. – are all media hoaxes.
The trenchline runs across the global South, while here behind enemy lines in the West we are rising to take back our corporate-invaded land and agriculture.
No, we’ve done all we can to negotiate. The fact is, representative democracy itself, the periodic elections, were supposed to constitute such negotiations. But we see that this was always a sham. System politicians have never done anything but lie to the people, and have never felt the slightest obligation to live up to their promises after the election. Indeed, many ideologues of pseudo-democracy (if not the practicing liar politicians themselves) have explicitly argued that the “representative” has no obligation to his constituents at all after the election is over, but is free to “vote his conscience”, conscience here being a euphemism for corrupt personal interest.
Reasonable people have to concede that the “negotiation” failed. We can never have a responsible, responsive, legitimate government in its current form.
In his own context, MLK came to a similar conclusion.
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.
All that was left was self-purification, and then you go out there and do it.
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. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
This is a direct rejoinder to those who want to keep the people kettled within a polity-wide “free speech zone”.
King goes on to discuss the change of governmental administrations which never constitutes a structural change. He agrees with the anarchists: Only direct action ever accomplished anything, and it did so with nonviolent force.
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
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.”
We have not only the right, but the obligation, to disobey unjust laws:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
All this is morally and intellectually clear. Genetic engineering, “intellectual property”, property in land, the corporate-held agricultural system, segregates we the people from our work, from our land, from our food, from our own bodies. The whole ideology of scientism, technocracy, instrumental reason, arises out of a fundamental self-loathing and hatred for the physical earth and the physical human body.
The I and Thou also signifies the human affinity with the earth, the soil, the crops, the food, and especially our human labor which indelibly interacts with these. The I and It demarcates our sundering from all that makes us human, our forced exile driven by corporate agriculture. Alien, anti-human corporations and all that is of them renders human society a destructive and self-destructive parasite squatter on the surface of the earth, but no longer a constructive part of it. With every action agricultural corporatism expresses its contempt for the earth. It insults the soil as the cradle of all complex life, treating it as nothing but an inert medium. It insults the seed as the universal embryo, treating it as a commodity to be painted, pimped, and most of all controlled. It adds the obscene injury of its wholesale poisoning of the soil, air, water, crops, and environment.
Legally and ideologically also this is a surface squatter regime, and an obscene alienation of humanity. The land, the soil, the very seed are “owned”, which word we must render in all corporate contexts as controlled and dominated, by an alien, anti-human entity. Indeed, a patent on a seed is alienation squared, since the patent is an abominable segregation and sundering of we the people from our common heritage, and it’s “owned” by an alien, anti-human entity whose very existence is also such an abomination.
Economically also this is a surface squatter regime and an obscene alienation from humanity. Growing our food is the essential human labor, the core human economic activity, the primary economy, and a deep spiritual endeavor, the main form of our communion with the earth and our thread of its harmony. We’re now to be alienated from this, driven off the land. For the Western middle class, into spiritual ghettos. For the Global South, into physical concentration camps called shantytowns. (This bell tolls also for us in the West, as our economic liquidation proceeds and the capitalist era reverts to a more feudal or ancient mode of tyranny.)
We’re all too familiar with this type today:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, 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.
Except that today the “moderate” isn’t an outsider with a shallow understanding, but either a predatory collaborator or else part of the prey herd himself. His moderation and lukewarm state are homicidal and/or suicidal. He sides with the oppressor against those who would fight.
King describes how the inertial mass deplores those who fight as “extremists”, as instigators of violence, and as being too impatient. But these charges are false. It’s the enemy who’s extreme, it’s the enemy who’s violent, and we’ve been far too patient for far too long.
But in all the things we do, we aren’t the ones generating the “tension” so unpleasant to conformists. Where it comes to that, we’re merely symptomatic:
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.
This is the only path forward.
King describes how the early Christians were sustained by their faith and their relentless will against long odds.
Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
That’s the hardest thing, to have to sometimes overcome the feeling of astronomical intimidation. The mission is daunting, and existing institutions are unlikely to offer any support:
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
This will also ring true for us today wherever we transpose it to representative government.
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands…
I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
In this piece King discussed the controversy over “patience”, which is also a controversy over the nature of time itself.
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.
Time itself is neutral, and the flow of time itself has no characteristic independent of what we choose to do with it. Abolitionism is a way of life. It’s not just labor toward a goal, let alone the ideas contained in the goal itself. Most of all it’s a way of life. The goal is most realized in the here and now, every day. This way of life means not only exercising democracy in any way we can but also fighting for it everywhere we must. This adds to the challenge and striving, but this challenge is the challenge of being human at all. The essence of humanity is to take responsibility for oneself, to achieve power over oneself, and then to exercise one’s responsibility, combining one’s personal strength in free cooperation with others to build a free and prosperous human community. Only in such a community can we then create the space for the essence of humanity, positive freedom. This is spiritual freedom, creative freedom, political freedom, participatory freedom. All can exist only on the basis of the cooperative prosperity which affords the time and opportunity for this freedom. Only this deserves the name democracy, and only this can be called in the most profound sense civilization.
Today corporatist barbarians seek to destroy democracy, civilization, and humanity itself. These barbarians are the opposite of the original tribes raging out of Central Asia. Those were the vigorous barbarians of ascent toward a richer civilization. Today’s barbarians of decadence are rotted and malevolent, ugly and stupid, but infinitely wicked. Their technology and wealth renders them the most powerful ruling class in history, at the same time that their utter lack of any redeeming quality whatsoever renders them history’s nadir, history’s most degraded, nihilistic, parasitic, and worthless ruling class. They represent not a stage of Western Civilization but its final self-cannibalization. This is the end of this pseudo-civilization, for better or worse. The corporate barbarians certainly intend the worst – the full reinstatement of a slave economy, through the vehicles of debt indenture and corporate domination of agriculture and food.
But we can defeat this satanic plan if we redeem from the wreckage of the corporate industrial agriculture system the greatest treasure we’ve won: The consciousness that we the people can rule ourselves. That we can maximize our happiness and prosperity through full political and economic democracy. That we don’t need “elites” for anything, and that elites are never anything but parasites and criminals.
All we need to do is accept this fact, believe in it, and take responsibility for it. The true Human Renaissance beckons. This is the same human evolution and salvation for which Martin Luther King fought, for which he sat in jail, for which he wrote a letter from that jail.
We shall live up to the standard he and so many other great fighters for humanity have set for us. It’s a very high standard, and the forces ranged against it are formidable. But we can do it. Freedom is ours wherever and whenever we want it. The time is ours whenever we choose it. Our freedom will assert itself as soon as we freely choose to fight for it.