‘We must revolt against this peace’: When unity becomes obnoxious

On June 28, 1955, U.S. District Judge Harlan Grooms heard the case of Autherine Lucy and Pollie Anne Myers, two young Black women who in 1952 were denied admission to the University of Alabama on the basis of race. During their three-year legal battle, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education in which the court unanimously declared segregation illegal—a landmark ruling that breathed new life into Lucy’s and Myers’s case. Twenty-four hours after hearing arguments from both sides, Judge Grooms ruled in favor of the young women.[1]

After the University found another excuse to reject Myers’s admission, Lucy proceeded alone, stepping on campus as the only Black student on February 3, 1956. Her first few days were without incident, but on Monday, February 6, she was attacked by a violent mob of white students who screamed racial slurs, threatened to kill her, and threw rotten eggs at the patrol car that was called to escort her to class.[2] That evening, the Board of Trustees voted to suspend Lucy effective immediately, claiming that this was in the best interest of campus safety. The next day, a headline in the local newspaper read, “Things Are Quiet in Tuscaloosa Today. There is Peace on the Campus of the University of Alabama.” Outraged by this whole ordeal, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery entitled, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.”[3]

“Yes, things are quiet in Tuscaloosa,” said King, “but it was peace at a great price… peace that had been purchased at the price of capitulating to the forces of darkness… It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the Almighty God.”[4]

At the heart of this sermon is a distinction woven throughout several of King’s sermons and writings—namely, the distinction between “negative” and “positive” peace. In the sermon’s climactic moment, King reflects on a conversation he had with a local man about the bus boycott in Montgomery:

            I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace… We must revolt against this peace.[5]

We must revolt against this peace. Not exactly the type of socially palatable King quote we find on inspirational posters and internet memes. Nevertheless, his indignant words here are powerful and prophetic for both his time and ours.

Over the past two weeks, our city has been turned upside down. Already facing the COVID-19 pandemic, our young people are forcing us to confront the much more destructive, 400-year-old pandemic of systemic racism. Thank God for their collective voice and courage!

As a community, we’ve never seen the level of public tension with law enforcement that we’ve seen in the past two weeks, culminating with the violent clashes downtown on the weekend of May 29th. Of course, Black communities in America are no strangers to this tension.[6] But as King learned throughout his life and work, when the tension begins to spill over and disrupt those with power and privilege, coordinated efforts calling for peace, for order, for unity, invariably soon follow.[7] And far too often, it seems the real motivation behind these efforts is to eliminate the tension, rather than to make a public commitment to address the underlying conditions that created the tension in the first place.

Last Thursday, city and community leaders came together for what was branded a “Unity March.” I would love to believe that the best of intentions motivated this symbolic gesture of solidarity, but many protestors immediately dismissed it as a publicity stunt. Many had been tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets mere days before the march, insisting that the police escalated the conflict through a heavy-handed response to a nonviolent act of civil disobedience (i.e. blocking traffic). Had this march occurred on the first day of the protest, perhaps it would’ve been better received. Had protestors been allowed to march on the street on that first weekend as they were on the following Thursday, perhaps we’d be having an entirely different conversation right now. I sympathize with the protestors who felt this march would be a positive first step. I also sympathize with those who felt this display of unity was obnoxious and disingenuous. Whichever side is closer to the truth, clearly we aren’t united, and any hope of actual unity must bear in mind the commitment unity requires of us.

Dr. King offers us six steps for launching a nonviolent campaign: 1) Information Gathering; 2) Education; 3) Personal Commitment; 4) Negotiation; 5) Direct Action; and 6) Reconciliation.[8] When it comes to racial tensions in America, the tendency of many privileged people of goodwill is to fast-forward to reconciliation, to declare unity so that we can all go back to what ultimately amounts to a negative peace. Tension is uncomfortable, and everyone loves a good story about healing and coming together. But Dr. King reminds us that reconciliation is the result of a longterm commitment to doing the work of justice. And Fort Wayne, we have a lot of work to do!

Are we ready to ask hard questions about the conditions of many of our Black sisters and brothers in our city? Are we ready to unpack the historical reasons of why we even have a “Black side of town?” Are we willing to do the soul-searching required of us to address the concentration of poverty and the health and educational disparities in our southeast quadrant? Will those of us with privilege and institutional power use our influence to advocate for real, substantive change? Will we, as a city, take responsibility for our complicity in systems of racism and make amends to our Black sisters and brothers? Are we willing to invest in the economic development of southeast Fort Wayne with at least the same level of energy and financial commitment that we continue to pour into downtown?

As we move forward, we have the opportunity to directly confront the ways in which systemic racism continues to destroy our community. My prayer is that this moment will ignite a sustained movement committed to rectifying our past and working toward a legitimate path of equality and justice for all people and neighborhoods in our city. Then, and only then, will we begin to taste the sweet fruit of reconciliation and unity. 

Angelo Mante serves as a pastor at Faith United Methodist Church, a multiracial congregation with a longstanding legacy of advocating for racial justice and modeling racial reconciliation in Fort Wayne. He is also the Founder of Alive Community Outreach, a 501(c)(3) focused on promoting nonviolence and supporting families who’ve been affected by homicide. He wrote this for Input Fort Wayne.


Footnotes


[1] https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/indomitable-spirit-autherine-lucy

[2] https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218232248/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/about_king/details/560206.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For more on the mental health effects of police brutality, please see https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/spotlight/2018/09/14/police-brutality-damaging-black-communitys-mental-health/1218566002/

[7] Letter From a Birmingham Jail is the most well-known effort related to King’s work. If you’ve never read it, please do: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail

[8] https://thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy/

Signup for Email Alerts