Water Man Spouts

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Creative Tension

"You may well ask, ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. We, therefore, concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in a monologue rather than a dialogue." – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from Birmingham City Jail

Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized the potential benefits of creative tension. He mentioned Socrates in the above quote, who applied creative tension in an individual sense. And Martin had become a student of the Gandhi school of thought, which frequently makes use of creative tension involving groups of people.

As we know from King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, the use of creative tension can be expected to cause alarm, and that alarm is frequently expressed by those who tend to share the same general goals as those who create that tension. That was true in Gandhi’s India, in King’s campaigns, and it is true today in the democratic party.

These are tense times. Our nation is facing a variety of crises that require that we rise from the bondage of the myths and half-truths, and move in a radically different direction. We must do this on the individual and the group level. It is not easy, but it is necessary. And to do so, we should be using history as a guide. I quoted from Martin’s letter, because it can help us to see how he viewed creative tension. It is important to listen closely to Martin’s words, because too often today, our society has created the "Martin mythology" that, as his friend Stanley Levison noted after King’s assassination, was creating "their plaster saint who was going to protect them from angry Negroes."

Let’s take a brief look at one example of creative tension, which might help us view recent events in democratic politics in an interesting context as we approach the 2008 elections. King’s Selma campaign was one of the most tension-filled phases of his career. The Selma campaign took place over an extended period. There is no single book or film that fully captures the significance of that chapter of our history, and I will not try to today. But I do like one sentence from Taylor Branch’s classic "At Canaan’s Edge" : "Organs of mainstream culture divided over Selma." (page 184)

One of the most interesting parts of the Selma campaign took place on February 4, 1965. Martin was in jail. The others civil rights leaders were divided on what tactics they should use. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee invited Minister Malcolm X to address the young demonstrators in Selma. Now, if Martin created tension, Malcolm might be said to have caused a general anxiety among almost everyone, except those students.

Andrew Young and James Bevel tugged on Malcolm’s collar before he spoke, and warned him not to "incite." Malcolm responded, "Remember this: nobody puts words in my mouth." King’s coworkers then asked his wife to speak to Malcolm. Now, Mrs. King was a gentle person, but she was actually was a bit more militant in her beliefs than her husband. She was the right person to speak to Malcolm.

Mrs. King would later say that Malcolm had assured her that he was not there to incite violence. He asked her to pass a message on to Martin, that he believed his being in Selma would make King’s movement look like a more acceptable alternative than more "angry Negroes."
Of course, today we know that there were other communications between Martin and Malcolm in 1964 and ’65. It was not a case of King being offended by Malcolm being in Selma, even if some of his coworkers were. If we look back at that incident today, we see that it involved a huge step by Malcolm: the tensions that resulted from his being kicked out of the Nation of Islam had resulted in his moving beyond the myths and half-truths of that movement, and taking a more progressive, politically mature step in the struggles of human rights.

It’s interesting to note that at the end of the Selma campaign, King would give his second – and last – speech that was carried live, in full, by network TV. (The first was during the March on Washington; both are wonderful examples of Martin dropping his scripted speech, and speaking extemporaneously.) "They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said we would get here only over their dead bodies." He spoke about the journey "through desolate valleys and across trying hill," words that I think describe today. "But all the world today knows that we are here, and we are standing before the forces of power in the State of Alabama, saying, ’We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around’."

It was in the Selma campaign that participants expanded on the songs of the movement. "We Shall Overcome" and "Go, Tell It on the Mountain" were part of the music of the Selma march. And so were "This Land Is Your Land" and "Blowin’ in the Wind." I think that reflects some of the changes that were taking place in the movement. Those changes led to what was Martin’s most important discussion regarding creative tension. In his 1967 "A Time to Break Silence" (aka "Beyond Vietnam"), Martin said, "Every man of humane convictions must decide on that protest that best suits his convictions, but we all must protest.

"There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sober reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation.They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for those and another dozen names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God."

Today we are concerned about Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan. We are concerned about an administration that, for a variety of reasons, is seeking to trample the Constitution of the United States. They work to create a revolutionary executive branch that has no respect for the balance of powers envisioned by our Founding Fathers. And sadly, they are well on their way to accomplishing their goals.

Many dedicated people, including the majority of the members of the democratic party, are organizing in an effort to oppose the administration and its coworkers. Our goals cannot be accomplished without the use of creative tension. Some of our more "moderate" friends are upset by things such as the call for an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq, or by the calls for the congress to investigate and impeach some of the individuals in the Bush administration.

I do not question their sincerity, any more than I would question that of Andy Young or James Bevel when they tried to "control" Malcolm. But like Martin said, "We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around." We are at a point where the creative tensions might make some of us question the tactics that one group chooses, or the actions another group uses to make its point. There should be differences of opinion within the party. It’s a good thing. Yet we should all use care so that others who are not sincere – and perhaps not even democrats – use those tensions to divide us, and to create discord and separation, rather than progress. We should take advantage of the opportunity to step back at times, and not react harshly to those who disagree with the tactics that we believe to be correct. For, as Gandhi said, "Intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s cause."


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