Yesterday, four police officers walked off the job at a WNBA game after a group of players donned shirts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This story marks but one of the many condemnations leveled at the protest organization since its inception, ranging from civilian complaints concerning blocked traffic, to public disapproval from the likes of Rudy Giuliani, who this week decried the group as racist and ineffectual.
Yet the public censure of black rights movements has a long and storied history in the United States, especially by moderates who claim to prioritize peace and prudence above all. Countless black activists—including lionized ones like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.—have long been lauded for having the right idea, but chastised for going about it the wrong way.
In 1853, The New York Herald reported on a speech Frederick Douglass delivered in the state capital. While the paper applauded the “extraordinary” and “eloquent” lecture, it regretted that Douglass’ rhetoric was “a little too fierce on the slavery question.” Years later, this time after emancipation, an Indiana paper came to the same judgment. The publication was “unfeignedly glad” for Douglass’ message, but beckoned him to change his tone, arguing he “will certainly do harm,” with “demands, however just, if arrogantly made.”
Douglass was all too familiar with this breed of criticism. The ideas were good, but the execution was off. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation,” he said in 1857, “are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. echoed his frustration with the same problem. In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, he wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate … who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’” Clear as he was here, the advice of moderates kept coming.
King’s mail was replete with invective and rebuke. “I believe and contribute to any cause for advancing human dignity,” read one from 1966, “but in your case I am awaiting the day when the brilliant Nobel Peace Prize Committee admits that you were the biggest mistake they ever made.”
In the tradition of abolitionists and Civil Rights protesters, Black Lives Matter is having its moment under scrutiny. There have been supportive critiques leveled, like this op-ed from a 1960s Civil Rights activist, who thinks (like Oprah) that the movement lacks clear leadership and goals.
But there have also been the unfortunately expected criticisms from people who claim to support the cause of equality, but take issue with the BLM’s rhetoric. When Donald Trump, for instance calls the movement’s rhetoric “divisive,” it’s hard not to see the parallel with the papers of the 1850s.
By Matt Reimann/Timeline
Posted by The NON-Conformist