1963 Birmingham, Alabama

In 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, charged with contempt of court and parading without a permit. (During his time behind bars, King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail.")

As one who lived through the civil rights marches and rallies of the early 1960s and the Vietnam War protests later that decade and into the '70s, I need to applaud New York University history professor Thomas Sugrue for setting the record straight.

Sugrue's column, published by The New York Times, takes issue with what he calls "white America's age-old, misguided obsession with civility."

He's referring to the backlash that has met some anti-Donald Trump protesters for cheering the restaurant that told Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and confrontations with other Trump staffers as they visited movie theaters and eating establishments.

The backlash has been bipartisan, from hypocritical Republicans who delight in harassing political opponents at their rallies to Democrats who insist that people need to play nice. Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer, for instance, described the harassment of political opponents as "not American" and suggested that polite debate is the answer. Many often point to Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent civil rights crusade as the benchmark.

"(T)hose who say that the civil rights movement prevailed because of civil dialogue misunderstand protest and political change," Sugrue wrote. "But in fact, civil rights leaders, while they did believe in the power of nonviolence, knew that their success depended on disruption and coercion as much — sometimes more —than on dialogue and persuasion."

Many came to realize that polite words would not change the behavior of those majority of whites who were indifferent or openly hostile to civil rights reforms.

Sugrue noted that after the incident in which Bull Connor sicced police dogs on school children and arrested hundreds of peaceful demonstrators (including King), angry black protesters looted Birmingham's downtown shopping district while many in New York and Philadelphia resorted to blocking construction sites, chaining themselves to cranes and clashing with law enforcement officials.

They were met claims from mostly white America that what they were doing was "un-American" and counterproductive.

The professor noted that even King, in his letter from the Birmingham jail, wrote, "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."

MLK Jr. added that the white moderate 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."

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Sugrue added that King knew that whites' insistence on civility usually stymied civil rights and that it was not until there was some disruption that people, including President John F. Kennedy, started taking notice.

"And when the beholder wants to maintain an unequal status quo, it's easy to accuse picketers, protesters, and preachers alike of incivility, as much because of their messages as their methods," the professor wrote. "For those upset by disruptive protests, the history of civil rights offers an unsettling reminder that the path to change is seldom polite."

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. 

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