By MURPHY BROWNE
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. I had hoped that the White moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.
I had hoped that the White moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
Excerpt from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King Jr., published in Why We Can’t Wait.
On Good Friday in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a group of African-Americans in a march into downtown Birmingham to protest White supremacist laws that denied African-Americans their human rights. They were all arrested and jailed.
In response to their demonstration and arrest, eight White religious leaders (Christian and Jewish) wrote an open letter which was published in a Birmingham newspaper. And it was in response to this letter that Dr. King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was included in his book, Why We Can’t Wait, published in 1964.
In his letter King explains: “Past promises have been broken by the politicians and merchants of Birmingham and now is the time to fulfill the natural right of all people to be treated equal”.
I thought of Dr. King’s book as I sat in the boardroom of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) at 5050 Yonge Street on Wednesday, November 11, listening to senior staff and trustees telling members of the Somali community who had traveled from Rexdale to plead their case, that they had to wait.
This group of parents and community members had been waiting for 10 years while their children were bused to a school that was an hour away while there is a school in their neighbourhood.
There were a few startling similarities between 1950s southern United States and the scenario at the TDSB: Children being bused to a school out of their neighbourhood; the Africans being told to wait and a White man whose attitude was reminiscent of the patronizing and patriarchal attitude of many White southerners, berating the members of the Somali community for daring to leave their neighbourhood and travel to the seat of power to plead their case.
There was also the White woman who pleaded with the Somali parents to go home because there was a meeting planned for the following Monday at a school in their neighbourhood. She seemed to be a person of goodwill and in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King detailed his experience with White people of seeming goodwill. He wrote: “I have just received a letter from a White brother in Texas. He writes: ‘All Christians know that the coloured people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost 2,000 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 goodwill.
The parents from Rexdale understood that even though this woman seemed like a person of goodwill, they had experienced broken promises and cancelled meetings and they were determined to speak and be heard at the November 11 TDSB meeting.
Their determination to be heard even if it meant, as one parent stated, “we are prepared to sleep here all night until we get an answer. We are sick of not being heard,” resulted in them getting an opportunity to let trustees at the TDSB know that after 10 years of seeing their children from kindergarten to Grade 8 (students 4 to 14 years old) bused to a school out of their neighbourhood, they were not prepared to wait another day to have their say.
Although there were some similarities to 1950s southern U.S., it was not all bad news. The parents did have an opportunity to express their concerns and, at a meeting in the Rexdale community the following Monday, there were no fire hoses, police dogs or even police. Unfortunately, not much came out of this community meeting with the TDSB. The community was told that they have to continue waiting, no telling if this wait will be for another 10 years.
In the book, Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote: “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 (and women) 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”.