Lessons in resistance from MLK, the ‘conservative militant’

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. (AP Photo)

Christopher Beem | Managing Director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State


Just days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, activists from Greenpeace climbed up a large construction crane near the White House and unfurled a large banner with the single word: Resist. The Conversation

On Feb. 11, thousands of protesters used their bodies to spell the word “resist” on a San Francisco beach. The next day, at the Grammys, rapper Q-Tip yelled “resist” no less than four times from the stage.

And on Feb. 26, at a rally outside Washington, Maryland Congressman John Delaney said to the audience,

“What do we have to do? We have to resist. This is a defining moment. It’s stirring our hearts and stirring our emotions and we’re committed to resisting with you.”

Christopher Beem

All of these examples speak to a widespread and resolute discontent with the election of President Trump. They express a rejection of his agenda and of what they see as his degradation of our democracy. “Resist” reflects their desire, insofar as they can, to stop this from happening.

But what exactly does it mean to resist? And most importantly, how can Americans make sure that their resistance is most likely to effect change?

I have studied the words and actions of Martin Luther King for decades. King led one of the most successful, nonviolent resistance movements in American history. I believe his example is especially germane to these questions.

What can today’s resisters learn from King and the civil rights movement?

MLK: A ‘conservative militant’

In the words of historian August Meier, who wrote a seminal book, “Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915,” published in 1963, King succeeded because he was “a conservative militant.”

The word, “conservative” has a specific meaning here. King was a democratic socialist, he opposed the Vietnam War and he called for massive investment in the inner cities. He was not conservative in any political sense. But what Meier showed was that King nevertheless manifested a conservative core – one that resonated with millions of Americans and thereby helped achieve the movement’s remarkable success.

In Meier’s words,

“American history shows that for any reform movement to succeed, it must attain respectability. It must attract moderates, even conservatives to its rank.”

King understood this. And to that end, he was indeed conservative – both in the arguments he made and the manner in which he presented them.

King argued that racism in America meant the United States was not living up to its own ideals. At the very core of the Declaration of Independence and thus at the center of American life was the belief that “all men are created equal.” But in America in the 1960s, and especially in the South, African-Americans lived out their lives as second-class citizens. In King’s words, American culture was “the very antithesis” of what it claimed to believe.

King did not want to challenge, let alone replace, ideals of freedom and equality. He wanted America to better embody them. He argued that the civil rights movement was just the latest in a long American tradition that was both grounded in those ideals and sought to make them more authentic.

King compared the civil rights movement with the abolitionist movement, the populist movement of farmers and laborers in the late 19th century, and even to the American Revolution itself. The American ideal “all men are created equal” constituted what King called a “promissory note.” In each case, ordinary citizens demanded that that promise be honored. And through their actions, the nation was made more free and more just.

By framing the cause of civil rights in words and ideas that most Americans strongly identified with, King was able to appeal to their innate patriotism. What’s more, those who stood against his cause were, by implication, the ones who could be seen as un-American.

King’s strategy

King’s resistance was also strictly nonviolent. Following the model of civil resistance developed by M.K. Gandhi, leader of Indian independence, King argued for nonviolence within the terms of his own Christian faith.

King said that by responding to injustice with civility and to violence with nonviolence, the resister was fulfilling “the Christian doctrine of love.” For King, that love was best reflected in the Greek word “agape,” an “understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.” This was the love that Christ epitomized, and which his followers were called to emulate.

But King also insisted that nonviolent resistance spoke to a respect for the law that can only be called conservative. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he was imprisoned in 1963, King insisted that while unjust laws must be broken, they must be broken “lovingly,” such that the act demonstrates a respect, even a reverence, for the law.

King argued that this nonviolent strategy was not simply the most Christian response. It was also “the most potent instrument the Negro community can use to gain total emancipation in America.” He said that violent protests gave the white man “an excuse to look away,” to ignore those who want to claim the mantel of equality.“

Conducting the struggle “on the high plane of dignity and discipline,” dressing well, using respectful language and accepting violence without responding in kind: All this gave protesters a moral standing that attracted moderates to the cause. It also sought to change the hearts and minds of the bigots, but even if that effort failed, the bigots were nevertheless defeated.

The Jim Crow system of racial segregation rested on the idea that African-Americans were inferior to whites. By rigidly adhering to the high road, the actions of protesters proved that that entire system was based on a falsehood.

Indeed, if anything, actions on both sides demonstrated the opposite.

Acting politically

Many protesters in the 1960s sought to bring down an established order that they saw as irredeemably racist and corrupt. But to those who said:

“Burn, baby, burn,”

King said,

“Organize, baby, organize.”

The fundamental purpose of resistance was to effect political change and that meant operating within existing political institutions.

It also often required compromise. For example, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, a crisis developed when the newly created and integrated “Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party” demanded they be recognized and seated instead of the all-white “official” Mississippi delegation. They argued they were the truly democratic representatives of the state as they were the product of procedures fair and open to all.

Party leaders worked out a compromise that allowed the Mississippi delegation to remain. King accepted this compromise, but many advocates condemned it as an illegitimate accommodation to racism.

King did not disagree, but he argued that this face-saving gesture would help to ensure that the South would not abandon then-candidate Lyndon Johnson. One year later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which ensured voting rights for all African-Americans, and brought federal control over elections in the South.

Today’s resistance is conservative

The notion of conservative militancy likely does not, however, resonate with today’s resisters. For many of them, this moment is an opportunity to grow and strengthen the left either within or outside the Democratic Party; for some, it is an opportunity to move beyond the two-party system altogether.

But within the civil rights movement, similar designs were often met with the operating principle: Keep your “eyes on the prize.” What it meant was that individuals should not allow themselves to be distracted. Rather, they should continually orient themselves and their actions such that they advance the movement toward the ultimate goal.

Right now, many Americans contend that longstanding democratic procedures, norms and ideals are under attack. Because they seek to defend those core American ideals, those who resist have become, by default, conservatives and patriots.

Contemporary resisters would therefore do well to remember King’s example.

By accepting their own role as “militant conservatives” and accommodating their actions accordingly, they are more likely to resist effectively, and thereby achieve the ends they seek.

Christopher Beem is managing director of the McCourtney Institute of Democracy at Penn State. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why do conservatives want the government to defund the arts?

Photo by Joep de Graaff/Flickr

Aaron D. Knochel | Assistant Professor of Art Education


Recent reports indicate that Trump administration officials have circulated plans to defund the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), putting this agency on the chopping block – again.

Conservatives have sought to eliminate the NEA since the Reagan administration. In the past, arguments were limited to the content of specific state-sponsored works that were deemed offensive or immoral – an offshoot of the culture wars.

Aaron D. Knochel

Now the cuts are largely driven by an ideology to shrink the federal government and decentralize power. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues that government should not use its “coercive power of taxation” to fund arts and humanities programs that are neither “necessary nor prudent.” The federal government, in other words, has no business supporting culture. Period.

But there are two major flaws in conservatives’ latest attack on the NEA: The aim to decentralize the government could end up dealing local communities a major blow, and it ignores the economic contribution of this tiny line item expense.

The relationship between government and the arts

Historically, the relationship between the state and culture is as fundamental as the idea of the state itself. The West, in particular, has witnessed an evolution from royal and religious patronage of the arts to a diverse range of arts funding that includes sales, private donors, foundations, corporations, endowments and the government.

Prior to the formation of the NEA in 1965, the federal government strategically funded cultural projects of national interest. For example, the Commerce Department subsidized the film industry in the 1920s and helped Walt Disney skirt bankruptcy during World War II. The same could be said for the broad range of New Deal economic relief programs, like the Public Works of Art Project and the Works Progress Administration, which employed artists and cultural workers. The CIA even joined in, funding Abstract Expressionist artists as a cultural counterweight to Soviet Realism during the Cold War.

The NEA came about during the Cold War. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy asserted the political and ideological importance of artists as critical thinkers, provocateurs and powerful contributors to the strength of a democratic society. His attitude was part of a broader bipartisan movement to form a national entity to promote American arts and culture at home and abroad. By 1965, President Johnson took up Kennedy’s legacy, signing the National Arts and Cultural Development Act of 1964 – which established the National Council on the Arts – and the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which established the NEA.

Since its inception, the NEA has weathered criticism from the left and right. The right generally argues state funding for culture shouldn’t be the government’s business, while some on the left have expressed concern about how the funding might come with constraints on creative freedoms. Despite complaints from both sides, the United States has never had a fully articulated, coherent national policy on culture, unless – as historian Michael Kammen suggests – deciding not to have one is, in fact, policy.

Flare-ups in the culture wars

Targeting of the NEA has had more to do with the kind of art the government funded than any discernible impact to the budget. The amount in question – roughly US$148 million – is a drop in the morass of a $3.9 trillion federal budget.

Instead, the arts were a focus of the culture wars that erupted in the 1980s, which often invoked legislative grandstanding for elimination of the NEA. Hot-button NEA-funded pieces included Andre Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ)” (1987), Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo exhibit “The Perfect Moment” (1989) and the case of the “NEA Four,” which involved the rejection of NEA grant applicants by performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes.

In each case, conservative legislators isolated an artist’s work – connected to NEA funding – that was objectionable due to its sexual or controversial content, such as Serrano’s use of Christian iconography. These artists’ works, then, were used to stoke a public debate about normative values. Artists were the targets, but often museum staff and curators bore the brunt of these assaults. The NEA four were significant because the artists had grants unlawfully rejected based upon standards of decency that were eventually deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.

As recently as 2011, former Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor targeted the inclusion of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress” (1986-87) in a Smithsonian exhibition to renew calls to eliminate the NEA.

In all these cases, the NEA had funded artists who either brought attention to the AIDS crisis (Wojnarowicz), invoked religious freedoms (Serrano) or explored feminist and LGBTQ issues (Mapplethorpe and the four performance artists). Controversial artists push the boundaries of what art does, not just what art is; in these cases, the artists were able to powerfully communicate social and political issues that elicited the particular ire of conservatives.

A local impact

But today, it’s not about the art itself. It’s about limiting the scope and size of the federal government. And that ideological push presents real threats to our economy and our communities.

Organizations like the Heritage Foundation fail to take into account that eliminating the NEA actually causes the collapse of a vast network of regionally controlled, state-level arts agencies and local councils. In other words, they won’t simply be defunding a centralized bureaucracy that dictates elite culture from the sequestered halls of Washington, D.C. The NEA is required by law to distribute 40 percent of its budget to arts agencies in all 50 states and six U.S. jurisdictions.

Many communities – such as Princeton, New Jersey, which could lose funding to local cultural institutions like the McCarter Theatre – are anxious about how threats to the NEA will affect their community.

Therein lies the misguided logic of the argument for defunding: It targets the NEA but in effect threatens funding for programs like the Creede Repertory Theatre – which serves rural and underserved communities in states like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona – and Appalshop, a community radio station and media center that creates public art installations and multimedia tours in Jenkins, Kentucky to celebrate Appalachian cultural identity.

While the present administration and the conservative movement claim they’re simply trying to save taxpayer dollars, they also ignore the significant economic impacts of the arts. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the arts and culture industry generated $704.8 billion of economic activity in 2013 and employed nearly five million people. For every dollar of NEA funding, there are seven dollars of funding from other private and public funds. Elimination of the agency endangers this economic vitality.

Ultimately, the Trump administration needs to decide whether artistic and cultural work is important to a thriving economy and democracy.The Conversation

Aaron D. Knochel is an assistant professor of art education at Pennsylvania State University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Professor Berkman talks democracy on ‘For The Record’

Political Science Professor Michael Berkman appeared on local television station WHVL’s “For The Record” show about Super Tuesday on Sunday, Feb. 28.

Here, he discusses the state of democracy today and the Democratic and Republican parties.

Watch the entire “For The Record” episode here.

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