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In MLK’s day, conservatives didn’t think he was so “civil”

He also knew calls for “civility” often serve to enforce the status quo.

Martin Luther King Jr. during his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech.
Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech.
AFP/Getty Images

With Donald Trump in the White House, it seems like an odd time for a debate about civility on the left to break out. But after three administration officials were confronted at restaurants in separate incidents last week, calls for civility have flourished. Those advocating a more polite politics argue that civility should be the left’s m.o. not only because it’s morally desirable, but because it’s politically effective — and “incivility” is not.

On Twitter, that bastion of civil discourse, former White House advisor David Axelrod, argued that the left, by cheering press secretary Sarah Sanders’s ouster from a Virginia restaurant, was playing into Trump’s hands. He wrote that he was “amazed and appalled” to see the left embrace this form of protest.

And Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic tweeted that he was “happy to entertain” the idea that such actions might be politically productive, but he perceived mostly ineffectual self-congratulation.

“[O]n the ‘civility works better’ side I cite Ghandi [sic] and MLK and Nixon’s re-election,” Friedersdorf wrote: “What would you cite for ‘incivility gets it done’?”

Dragging Martin Luther King, Jr into the debate, though, undercuts rather than supports the pro-civility argument. Not because King rejected civility — he regularly called for nonviolence not only in action but in speech, to make unignorable the moral chasm between the tactics of the nonviolent protesters and the vitriol and bloodshed of the other side.

But not only were King and nonviolent activists regularly denounced as too uncivil, stirring up trouble in an otherwise peaceful society, but King in particular saw calls for civility as the wily weapons they were.

Many Americans viewed MLK Jr. as the opposite of a model of civility

For all the saintliness King has accrued since his death, he was regularly reviled during his life, portrayed as someone recklessly rending the fabric of a largely free and democratic society. By 1966, 63 percent of Americans had a negative perception of King. And it wasn’t just King the person they disliked. It was his commitment to direct action, frequently described as threatening civic norms in a fundamental way.

In 1965, Will Herberg wrote in the National Review: “For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country.” By calling out “mobs” to protest against injustice, Herberg argued, King and his acolytes “have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed.”

The Chicago Tribune, in an anti-King editorial following a 1966 march through the city, juxtaposed the tranquility of daily life with the disruption of protest. “Families ordinarily would be enjoying the chance to sit on the front porch reading the paper, to sprinkle their lawns and work in their gardens, or to go to the park or beach. Instead, they are confronted by a shuffling procession of strangers carrying signs and posing as martyrs. The spectacle is repulsive to right-thinking people.” In other words, why couldn’t the rabble-rousers leave Chicagoans alone to enjoy their weekend in peace (just as Sanders should have been allowed to enjoy a quiet evening out)?

Nor was it just conservative outlets that believed King and his methods contributed to incivility — or worse. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak penned a column calling for “civility” and “tolerance” to be restored to America. They found the seeds of national violence in the “un-civil disobedience” of direct action, and traced a single line from sit-ins to urban uprisings to the assassinations of King and Kennedy.

King knew “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” was no ally

King, of course, understood these calls to civility for what they were: attempts to shut down, or at least slow, the movement for equal rights. That understanding shaped his response, in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” to moderate white Alabama pastors who encouraged their congregants to reject King, a man they saw as an outsider disturbing the peaceful atmosphere of the South.

King’s famous letter spoke directly to these calls for a more “constructive and realistic” response to oppression. He denounced “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.”

Peace, King understood, was not the primary goal. The status quo, though never as peaceful as it appeared to white Americans, existed precisely because society had created enough legal and social mechanisms to enforce inequality and oppression without obvious acts of state violence and extrajudicial terror. The civility of segregation was upheld by the threat of violence, a threat King helped make clear through his program of resistance.

The current calls for civility ignore this longer history. They overlook the way civility has been used as a cudgel, providing moral cover for immoral laws. And they fail to grapple with the limits of what really can be achieved by civility.

Which is the other problem with saying King’s actions are evidence that “civility works better”: King was only one voice within the push for black freedom; many other participants in that struggle saw nonviolent resistance as at best a useful tactic and at worst a useless one. The threat of “the fire next time” — James Baldwin’s warning of more violent resistance to white supremacy that would follow if nonviolent resistance failed — pushed lawmakers to work with King on civil rights legislation. Civility worked, sort of, but only in combination with the background threat of much less civil tactics.

In recent years, we have seen a rise in the number of voices clamoring for a return to an era of centrism, consensus, and civility. But rarely do the proponents of this other version of making America great again really grapple with the way those ideas have historically worked to protect the powerful and sustain the status quo.

Civility is a nice idea, but it should be the reward for securing a more just nation. It’s not the surest way to achieve justice. Indeed, it can be a method for denying it.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.

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