Wait, they told Martin Luther King Jr.
Eight white Southern religious leaders asked the young minister not to lead civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala. With emotions high in that tinderbox of a city, they cautioned that the time and place for marches just weren’t right.
King’s reply was his galvanizing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our God-given and constitutional rights,” he wrote to the religious leaders. Later in his letter, he said what too many of us, both exhausted and unbowed, still know: “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’ ”
It’s been 54 years since King wrote those words, and now more than 400 years that African-Americans have been waiting for their unalienable rights. And, somehow, we’re still expected to wait because, when it comes to confronting racism, it’s never the right time or place.
Don’t take a knee during the pregame national anthem to oppose racial injustice and police violence — it disrespects the flag and veterans. Don’t protest questionable police shootings of African-Americans — it hurts officer morale. Don’t mention a lack of diversity during awards season — the nominations have nothing to do with race.
President Trump claims his attacks on athletes taking a knee have nothing to do with race but, as usual, whenever his mouth or Twitter app is open, he’s lying. Trying to reframe this protest as a seditious act is Trump again impugning African-American patriotism, typical for a man who spent years trying to delegitimize the first black president by questioning his native-born citizenship. Trump and his minions know exactly what this protest, launched last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is about. Yet they’re so frightened to call racism by its name that they’ve generated a false controversy. This protest is no more about the flag than 1960s lunch counter sit-ins were about the food.
Flipping truth into something more politically palatable is a variation on an old theme: It’s always the wrong time and place to talk about racism. It’s a silencing tactic disguised as a plea for propriety. During a Red Sox game earlier this month, protesters briefly draped from Fenway Park’s Green Monster a banner that read, “Racism is as American as baseball.” Team policy forbids banners of any kind hung from or affixed to the ballpark, but a postgame comment from Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, who is black, was more revealing: “There’s no place for that,” he said. “That’s for another day, though.”
The greatest trick conservatives ever pulled was convincing America that talking about racism is worse than racism itself.
For centuries, African-Americans have been told our rights can wait. Any attempt to move the needle with urgency is met with resistance, jeers, even violence. As Nina Simone sang on “Mississippi Goddam,” her evergreen protest song, “I don’t trust you anymore, you keep saying, ‘Go slow, go slow!’ ”
Going slow caters to the timeline of those who benefit from or revel in the oppression of others. Another day becomes next month, next month becomes next year, next year becomes never.
“Actually, we who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote in his 1963 letter, which later was expanded into his book “Why We Can’t Wait,” a bestseller. “We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
America does not want it in the open. Waiting will yield only more discrimination and despair, and we’re already enduring its inevitable result: a racist administration openly disdainful of civil and constitutional rights, and a nation more outraged by a conscientious athlete with his or her knee on the turf than dead black and brown bodies on the ground.
Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.