In 1963, Martin Luther King addressed a group of local white clergy who were upset with him and his colleagues for being so confrontational, so direct, and so impatient in what became known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” After recounting the many earlier attempts to address matter that produced little if any change, King wrote this:
You may well ask: Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
In 2010, on the eve of the midterm Congressional elections, President Obama sat down with five prominent LGBT bloggers to try to tamp down the LGBT community’s pressure on him to quit defending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. LGBT activists had been raising the temperature on the White House, and Obama had the audacity to refer to King’s letter in telling them that LGBTs simply need to wait until the right time:
And so, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified.
Now, I say that as somebody who appreciates that the LGBT community very legitimately feels these issues in very personal terms. So it’s not my place to counsel patience. One of my favorite pieces of literature is ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and Dr. King had to battle people counseling patience and time. And he rightly said that time is neutral. And things don’t automatically get better unless people push to try to get things better.
So I don’t begrudge the LGBT community pushing, but the flip side of it is that this notion somehow that this administration has been a source of disappointment to the LGBT community, as opposed to a stalwart ally of the LGBT community, I think is wrong.
As I said at the time, I think Obama needs to reread the Letter, as he completely misses King’s meaning time and time again over his tenure at the White House. In January 2011, the DOD’s General Counsel Jeh Johnson attempted to say that King would have been fine with drones, indefinite detention, and the War in Afghanistan, totally misunderstanding King’s life’s work in general and his very specific comments about war and non-violence in particular. Let the record show slightly less than two years after making those remarks, Jeh Johnson become the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Those old posts came back to me as I watched Obama’s speech about the NSA last Friday, and watched the subsequent analysis of it — especially that done by the invaluable Marcy Wheeler (see here, for instance). Barack “No Drama” Obama disdains confrontation, and yet it was the drama created by the direct action of Edward Snowden, together with the journalistic work of Glenn Greenwald, Der Spiegel, the Guardian, and others, that has done what King talked about: “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Marcy and others have been shouting for years about unconstitutional institutional overreach in the intelligence community, and the response from Obama was no better than the response from Bush, until Snowden’s leaks started appearing in print. When Obama nominated Dawn Johnsen to be the head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel shortly after his election in 2008, he raised hopes that this kind of unreviewable, unchallengable, behind-the-scenes approach to the Executive branch’s conclusions about what is and is not constitutional would change. While others nominated to senior DOJ posts were confirmed, she waited, and waited, and waited some more. While Obama fought for other nominees, she sat alone, in silence. When her nomination was eventually withdrawn, it came as no surprise. As bmaz wrote most eloquently,