Creative Tension and the Visual Dramatization of Injustice in Social Reform Movements

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director

The following passages are taken from the book MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. ON LEADERSHIP (Donald T. Phillips, 1998: Warner Books). They demonstrate a key principle of social reform movements, namely, that the injustice which the movement is fighting must be exposed visually to the culture which is unwilling to confront it. This exposure of the injustice brings a tension to the foreground which is already there, though hidden, and which those complicit in the injustice will attribute to those who fight the injustice.

The parallel to the pro-life movement is simple. The evil of abortion must be graphically exposed, and the tension and horror which that creates is what is needed to move people to action. -- Fr. Frank Pavone

"Martin was extremely impressed with the initiative of the people in Albany and pointed out that such demonstrations served 'the purpose of bringing the issues out in the open.' It was a concept that was quickly picked up and imitated. 'Our reliance on mass demonstrations,' Martin later noted, '[was] intended to isolate and expose the evil-doer,' " (127).

"It was in this vein that Martin and his team employed a strategic and creative utilization of the media to get the movement's mission across. Massive publicity generated sympathy for people who were attacked and brutalized - whether it was Freedom Riders being attacked and beaten in Anniston or children being bitten in Birmingham by police dogs." (130).

"Everyone agreed that if the SCLC went to Birmingham, the ultimate goal would not be to desegregate the city, but to 'awaken the moral conscience of America' and produce federal legislation that would force desegregation everywhere.'

Now that was a noble mission around which everyone could rally. And, indeed, a consensus was reached to move forward. Discussion then turned to creating a detailed plan of action - which the group collectively named 'Project C' - the 'C' standing for 'Confrontation.'

Remembering that in Albany they had scattered their efforts too widely, the group chose to focus on one facet only - the business community rather than the city government. 'We decided to center the Birmingham struggle,' wrote Martin, 'on the economic power structure [because] we knew that. . . Negroes had enough buying power to make the difference between profit and loss in almost any business.'

Specific goals were then proposed and agreed upon for Project C. The primary objectives included desegregation of department store facilities and all other public facilities; establishment of fair hiring practices for local business and government; dismissal of all charges against demonstrators; and creation of a biracial committee to monitor and enforce the implementation of city desegregation.

Next, a precise timetable for action was defined - along with specific methods and techniques to be employed, such as mass meetings, boycotts and sit-ins, mass marches, and enough arrests to fill up the jails in and around Birmingham. Overall, the plan was designed to precipitate a crisis or 'a creative tension,' as Martin liked to call it, that would force the recalcitrant majority to the negotiating table.

At that point, it was time to begin the implementation phase. First, the direct action team was deployed to Birmingham. Once there, its members established a general office at the Gaston Motel, Room 30. And central headquarters for the entire local movement was designated to be the conveniently located 16th St. Baptist Church on the edge of downtown.

The team immediately set to work on a variety of fronts. They reviewed all the local laws regarding marching, picketing, and demonstrating. They carried out preliminary detailed footwork involving such things as investigating the department stores that were to be targeted - right down to the number of stools at each lunch counter. Preliminary groundwork was also laid for mobilizing the media. Part of the SCLC's strategy here was to have local, national, and international news coverage - especially television coverage - of everything that happened in Birmingham." (156-8).

"He also pointed out that 'long years of experience' taught him that specific goals could be achieved when four things occur: 1) nonviolent demonstrators go into the streets to exercise their constitutional rights; 2) racists resist by unleashing violence against them; 3) Americans of conscience in the name of decency demand federal intervention and legislation; 4) the administration, under intense pressure, initiates measures of immediate intervention and remedial legislation," (163).

"One of the most significant facts of the historic March on Washington was that one quarter of the people gathered together were white - marking their first large-scale participation in the civil rights movement. They had been moved by the events of Birmingham - and so had the rest of the nation. That summer, President Kennedy proposed to Congress the most comprehensive, far-reaching civil rights legislation ever conceived. By the fall, schools across the South were integrating without even the slightest hint of violence.

The goal Martin's team had set prior to Birmingham - to 'awaken the moral conscience of America' and produce federal legislation that would force desegregation everywhere - had been achieved. But the price was high." (172-3).

"A few weeks later (on February 1), in a well-coordinated event, Martin was arrested along with 150 other demonstrators as they marched from Brown Chapel to downtown Selma. Taken to the city jail on the charge of parading without a permit, Martin refused to accept bail. 'I must confess,' he said as he was carted off, 'this is a deliberate attempt to dramatize conditions in this city, state, and community.' Martin and Ralph Abernathy were placed in a cell together where, for the first two days, they fasted, prayed, meditated, and sang hymns" (201-2).

"It wasn't long thereafter that reactions by white segregationists to black demonstrations became more intense. Just prior to the first night march in Selma on February 18, for instance, camera lenses were sprayed with black paint so that they could not record the violence" (202).

"On Bloody Sunday national television networks broke into regularly scheduled programming and flashed across the country the violent and bloody scenes from Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. Almost immediately, the public's wrath came down on local government and the state of Alabama. A defiant George Wallace, however, responded by banning night marches and labeling the SCLC staff 'professional agitators with pro-Communist affiliations.'

The SCLC's response was to send out a call to people of good will asking them not only to show up in Selma but to deluge the federal government with telegrams asking for intervention. Then Martin released a statement, which said, in part: 'In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America.'

As people from all over the nation, led by hundreds of white clergymen and nuns, began converging on Selma, the SCLC laid plans for another Selma-to-Montgomery march to commence on Tuesday. Martin King then gathered the entire SCLC executive team together for support and counsel. It was clear that a decision had to be made as to whether or not to march. Everyone agreed that it was Martin's decision alone to make. While he consulted with both his staff and leaders in the SNCC, the pressure not to march became intense. A court order banning the march was issued by a federal judge and President Johnson lobbied King to alter his plans. When Assistant Attorney General John Doar visited Selma to personally express the president's wishes, Martin recalled the conversation: 'He very strongly urged us not to march. I listened attentively. I explained why I felt it was necessary to seek a confrontation with injustice on Highway 80. I asked them to try to understand that I would rather die on the highway in Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience.' And Martin later wrote '[I] held on to my decision despite the fact that many people were concerned about breaking the court injunction issued by one of the strongest and best judges in the South,' (209-10).

"As a matter of fact, one of the reasons Martin marched was to create drama - and a sense of urgency. Marching, he said in 1966, was 'part of a program to dramatize and evil, to mobilize the forces of good will, and to generate pressure and power for change.' 'I'm still convinced,' he said on another occasion, 'that there is nothing more powerful to dramatize a social evil than the tramp, tramp of marching feet" (227).

"Over then next several months, the SCLC-CCCO coalition organized block meetings that pulled together tenants of various apartment buildings. In one building near Martin's apartment, conditions were so deplorable that he and the staffers simply took over. They collected rent money from the occupants and began to remedy many conditions that had long been neglected - such as repairing faulty heating, picking up trash, and exterminating rats. When the building's landlord protested, Martin essentially ignored him. And by the time a court order was secured to stop the action, most of the repairs had already been made. When asked how he could break the law so blatantly, Martin simply replied: 'The moral question is far more important than the legal one.'

In order to dramatize the slum situation, the SCLC staff held press conferences in the middle of the tenements so that cameras could show the degradation to the outside world" (232).

"But over the next few days, it seemed as though all of white Chicago turned its anger toward Martin Luther King, Jr. Politicians, the press, and members of the clergy attacked him. He was to blame for all the violence. He was the agitator, they charged. End the marching now, they demanded.

Martin quickly responded to all the criticism at a mass rally. 'You want us to stop marching?' he asked. '[Then] make justice a reality. . . . I'm tired of marching for something that should have been mine at birth,' he went on to say. 'If you want a moratorium on demonstrations, put a moratorium on injustice. . . . I don't march because I like it. I march because I must, and because I'm a man," (237).

" 'We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation,' he said of this step in the process. 'I am not afraid of the words 'crisis' and 'tension.' Innate in all life, and all growth, is tension. Only in death is there an absence of tension. To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates. Injustices must be brought out into the open where they cannot be evaded' " (251).


Following is an extended passage that notes how the creative tension unleashed in Birmingham, and captured by national media, energized the movement and achieved its goal. (pp. 164 - 171)

So it was that Martin Luther King, Jr., and a handful of staff members entered Birmingham, Alabama, to change the course of American history - armed only with a set of goals, a detailed plan of action, and a determination to succeed.

The campaign officially began on April 3, 1963, with the implementation of a full-fledged economic boycott coupled with a few days of carefully timed and coordinated lunch counter sit-ins at five downtown stores. "Being prepared for a long struggle," Martin later explained, "we felt it best to begin modestly, with a limited number of arrests each day. By rationing our energies in this manner, we would help toward the buildup and drama of a growing campaign."

Steadily, the demonstrations grew more pronounced with each passing day. On April 6, a small group of protesters were arrested and hauled off in paddy wagons after a peaceful march to city hall. There were also a series of sit-ins at the public library and kneel-ins at carefully selected white churches. Then, when the effects of the Easter economic boycott began to be felt, business leaders began to complain to city officials. In response, an injunction was obtained on April 10 ordering the cessation of all demonstrations until the arguments could be heard in court.

Martin then assembled his team to consider the injunction. After several hours of discussion in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel, the group decided to disobey the court order. It marked the first time that the movement would strategically and intentionally defy the courts -- but it would not be the last. Martin then stunned the opposition by holding a press conference to announce the decision. "[It is] obvious to us," he said, "that the courts of Alabama [have] misused the judicial process in order to perpetuate injustice and segregation." The group had also decided to hold a march on Good Friday, April 12, "because of its symbolic significance." At that time, Martin said, he and Ralph Abernathy would "present our bodies as personal witnesses in this crusade." Later, at that night's mass meeting, he vowed to the cheering crowd that "Injunction or no injunction, we're going to march. Here in Birmingham, we have reached the point of no return. Now they will know that an injunction can't stop us."

But shortly after that statement was made, a crisis developed that had the potential to halt the entire Birmingham movement. Word arrived from Harry Belafonte in New York that bail bond funds were depleted. And with dozens of demonstrators languishing in jail, renewed pressure was placed on Martin to hit the campaign fund-raising trail. At another hastily called meeting of the staff at the Gaston Motel, Martin was advised by his team that he should not go to jail, that money needed to be raised, and that he was the only one who could do it.

Then came a defining moment in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American civil rights movement. Without speaking, he stood up and went back to his own bedroom to be alone for a few minutes. Upon his return, he was no longer dressed in his black suit, but instead was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a work shirt. "I don't know what will happen," he told the members of his team. "I don't know where the money will come from. But I'm going to jail."

On Good Friday, April 12, Martin, Ralph Abernathy, and a large group of demonstrators began their march on downtown Birmingham. Within five blocks, they were met by Police Commissioner Bull Connor and a large contingent of his officers. The protesters were informed they were under arrest for violating the recent court injunction and then were promptly loaded into paddy wagons. Upon arrival at the Birmingham jail, everyone was locked up together except Martin, who was put by himself in a dark cell without a mattress, blanket, or pillow. He was not allowed to make any phone calls and his lawyers, who were blocked by Connor, were not allowed in to see him.

Wyatt Walker, incensed at the way Martin was being treated, sent a telegram to President Kennedy urging him to intercede. A few days later, after a series of phone calls between movement leaders and representatives of the federal government, President Kennedy called Coretta personally and assured her that her husband was safe and would be calling her from the jail shortly. Within a half hour, Martin was given a pillow and mattress by his jailers and then escorted to a telephone where a call was placed to his wife.

After reassuring Coretta that he was okay, and hearing from her that the president had intervened in his behalf, Martin's spirits began to pick up. He was soon taken back to his cell and given a copy of the Birmingham News to read up on the local news. In addition to several accounts of recent events, the paper contained a statement issued by eight white clergymen who voiced objections to the demonstrations.

While commending the police and condemning King, they urged the African-American community to cease demonstrations and work through the courts instead. These were all objections and criticisms Martin had heard before but, generally, he had little time to sit down and compose responses. However, being in solitary confinement with nothing else to do, he started writing a reply to the white clergymen in the margins of the newspaper.

"While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities 'unwise and untimely,' " he began. "I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms . . . ."

Martin then stated in some detail that his team "did not move irresponsibly into direct action," and he described the technique as "a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. You may well ask," he said, "'Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are exactly right in your call for negotiation . . . . Direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue .... So the purpose of direct action," Martin concluded, "is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."

Toward the end of the letter, Martin also appealed to the conscience of the white clergymen. "I had hoped," he lectured them, "that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension of the South is merely a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality."

And he went on to say: "Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come .... In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed."

Martin concluded his statement with a couple of paragraphs commending the clergymen, and this eloquent statement of optimism: "I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America."

First published in a small pamphlet, more than a million copies of Martin King's Letter from Birmingham Jail were quickly distributed across the nation. As such, it became a key communication expressing the goals and philosophy of the American civil rights movement. More than that, however, its basis in the goodness of man, along with its eloquence, served to inspire and motivate many people to the cause.

His imprisonment, however, had slowed the Birmingham demonstrations to a crawl. People had gone eleven days without their leaders and no one was taking any action on their own initiative. Then, on April 22, Martin, Ralph, and the other protesters were tried and convicted of violating the injunction banning all protests. The judge sentenced them to five days in jail and a $50 fine. By this time, however, Harry Belafonte had raised enough bond money to bail out the movement's leaders. And Martin, realizing that he needed to rejuvenate the movement, paid the bond and instructed his lawyers to appeal the conviction.

The first thing Martin did upon his release was call his team together to regroup. During that conference, they decided to "pick up the action because the press is leaving" by strategically setting out to recruit more troops. There was only one problem, however. Nearly all the local adults who were willing to participate were already in jail. As Wyatt Walker remembered, "We had scraped the bottom of the barrel of adults who could go." The team then debated the idea of recruiting high school students to help "fill the jails." In the end, a consensus was reached to move forward on that plan.

So the direct action team went out to Birmingham's black high schools, talked to students, and circulated leaflets. While Martin was hesitant about the strategy, Ralph Abernathy later called the decision to bring the children into the protests "an act of wisdom, divinely inspired."

On May 2, the time set for the children to march, a principal at one high school locked the gates in an attempt to prevent the students from leaving. But hundreds of young people scaled the fences and headed toward the 16th Street Baptist Church where the protest was to begin. In addition, many hundreds of younger, grade-school-aged children showed up to participate.

Three waves of the youngsters were sent out in a coordinated effort led by Andrew Young and James Bevel. They were met by Bull Connor, who, this time, had not only an army of officers, but police dogs, fire hoses, and an armored tank. As the first group of children were led to the paddy wagons, they began singing "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around" and "We Shall Overcome."

But the second and third waves had a different fate. As the group moved toward the policemen, they were shouting, "We want freedom. We want freedom." Connor, whose patience finally had run out, simply said: "Let 'em have it." With that command, firemen turned on hoses with pressure so high it actually stripped the bark off trees. Adults and high school students were smashed against buildings and washed down the streets. Children were viciously attacked and bitten by the unleashed German shepherd police dogs. Some adults became so enraged that they began to throw bricks and bottles -- a breach of the nonviolent covenant. When that happened, the police surged forward with hilly clubs in hand and beat, kicked, and mauled everyone in sight. The crowd finally broke and rushed back to the church. "Look at those niggers run," Bull Connor bellowed.

The arrogant segregationist police chief, however, had made a fatal mistake. He had unleashed his power on innocent victims in front of national news cameras. The next day, the media had a field day -- splashing pictures of police dogs biting children, hoses knocking down teenagers, and officers brutally beating adults. There was no lack of participants in Birmingham after those photos appeared. Even President Kennedy said the images made him "sick."

The SCLC's conscious and skillful manipulation of the mass media had worked, as the eyes of the nation were now focused on Birmingham. As the press followed the next several days of marches, they reported every detail, including the fact that, at the height of the demonstrations, nearly three thousand people had been arrested -- and that Connor had no place to put them. According to Martin, it was "the first time in the civil rights movement that we were able to put into effect the Gandhian principle of "Fill up the jails."'

On May 5, another defining moment in the modern era of nonviolent direct action occurred. As more than one thousand people headed toward the Birmingham jail on a prayer pilgrimage, they halted upon encountering Bull Connor's men. Martin, who was coordinating events on a walkie-talkie, watched the leaders in the front of the crowd kneel and pray. When they rose to move forward, Connor ordered his men to turn on the hoses. But the firemen just stood there, some with tears in their eyes. "Dammit!" yelled Connor. "Turn on the hoses!" As the demonstrators marched slowly forward, the ranks of firemen and policemen parted and allowed the young people to proceed. "It was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story," Martin recalled. "I saw there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence."

With the world's media focused on Birmingham; with Connor's forces no longer willing to fight back; with the economic boycott now taking a significant toll on business; and with the jails filled -- Birmingham's officials finally decided to contact black leaders and open negotiations. Accordingly, Martin, Andrew Young, and Wyatt Walker met secretly with white leaders at a private residence to begin hammering out a settlement.

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