The Cold Hard Truth

The Cold Hard Truth

By J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

Vol. 11, No. 6, 1989, pp. 24, 23

The unspeakable and cowardly Sunday morning bombing and slaughter of the four children in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is like it happened yesterday. It will always remain so in the minds of many.

Scores of my associates cannot recall many days since that bombing when our lives, directly or indirectly, were not in some form of jeopardy. A black leader in Dixie whose life has not been seriously threatened at least twice is either ineffective or a fraud or both.

The current bombings are not a new problem for black leaders. The attack on white judges is new but hardly eliminates racism as a motive. A suspected drug connection also does not put racism to rest, all other things considered.

Since the first slave ship docked in America, it has been a life-threatening ordeal to offer or provide effective leadership to black people. It is perfectly safe to mislead blacks. In fact, that is how some blacks survive.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew he could not sit safely with white leaders in a quiet room and effectively negotiate racial progress in Dixie. Obviously, an apostle of nonviolence would have preferred a quiet, negotiated approach if it had held any hope of success.

Black progress in Dixie is always seen and defined as a diminution of white power, privilege and money; thus any black progress immediately becomes a classic power struggle between blacks and whites–a struggle almost never amenable to meaningful negotiations.

King discussed those very points in speeches and was even more vivid in private. Precisely because he understood, this apostle of non-violence consciously placed his life and family in serious jeopardy by assuming effective leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As expected, his home and many others were bombed.

His life remained at great risk until it was taken on a hotel balcony in Memphis. That, too, was not really unexpected.

No person in America understood white power better than King. Few Presidents understood it as well. King knew he could become instantaneously rich, safe and even “honored” by every white leader in America if he would deliberately become ineffective as a black leader. He often laughed about it.

Ineffective black leaders are absolutely safe in America. No civil rights leader of late has been killed or even threatened (except the poor black lawyer the other day in Savannah) because collectively and singularly they are almost wholly ineffective. They surrendered our most effective weapon (direct action) and we have been ineffective ever since. And, of course, they have been safe. There will be no motel balconies for them.

If King had lived it would be as dangerous in 1989 t’ be a civil rights leader as it was in 1965, because he would be waging a struggle as effectively now as he was then. He would not be selling his people out for nickle [sic] jobs, empty titles and superfluous positions.

The next black leader who comes forward at a crucially tactical moment to nervously suggest “bi-racial negotia-

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tions” or “dialogue,” ask him to detail his past accomplishments for black people along those lines. Find out how safe and secure he is with white leaders. You might also ask what titles, jobs and positions have been given him.

On the other hand, unless you have lived in a cave isolated from everybody and everything you already know the answers to those questions.


J. L. Chestnut is an Alabama trial lawyer and writer.