“Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men and women willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963
Two days ago I publicly read these words during a time for public comment of a Newark, NJ-based state agency, the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. In the Ironbound environmental justice neighborhood in inner city Newark, an area which already has three of them, PVSC plans to build a fourth fracked gas power plant. There has been a strong resistance movement against this plan for years, led by local residents, and we have jammed it up so far.
As one of the tactics used in fighting this project members of our movement have been attending, in person and virtually, the monthly meetings of this agency. This was probably the tenth such meeting I’ve attended and spoken at. Before each meeting I try to think of a different angle to get through to the PVSC board members. This time, because of my having read several months ago all five of Dr. King’s books, the idea came to me of reading from King’s Birmingham jail letter.
I don’t know enough about this group to know how “good” each of them are, but I’m sure most of them see themselves as upstanding citizens. So when I read it, I emphasized Kng’s line about the “appalling silence of the good people.”
What King wrote in 1963 is always applicable to some degree or the other. There are always people who live decent lives on a personal level, love their family and work hard but who never speak up or speak out about systemic injustice and oppression. Indeed, successful mass movements like the civil rights/Black Freedom movement of the 50’s and 60’s win important victories largely because they are able to dramatically expand the ranks of those willing to speak up and take action.
How can those of us already actively working for a just, peaceful and loving world do this today, right now, at this “worst of times” that can also become the “best of times” if we unite, stay strong and keep organizing?
The most important way is to be a consistently good example for others, day after day, hour after hour.
There is a deep and long history on the political Left worldwide of people who were once justice-seeking revolutionaries becoming corrupted after they individually or the movements they led got into positions of societal power. This historic fact is why we must reject individualistic, patriarchal and racist models of “leadership” and daily be all about building a progressive movement internal culture which is cooperative and supportive for all within it.
The building of this positive way of working together is most definitely another key way to help other good people—who most people are—to find their voice. It is extremely hard to have the emotional strength to speak out if there’s no community of support to do so. That community could be very small, even one or two close friends, but it can make all the difference.
But it’s more than personal and cultural. Also critical is not-yet-active good people seeing actions, events or demonstrations, in person or electronically, that make clear that there are a growing number of people joining in and throwing down. We need mass movements. Dr. King believed deeply that key to fundamental social transformation, to revolutionary change, is the tactic of mass nonviolent direct action. He believed that based on his practical experience in the brutally segregated South. Ever a visionary, he wrote, in the Birmingham letter:
“Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
True then, still true now. Good people, speak out and rise up!
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