“Wait” has almost always meant “never”

“I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” — Martin Luther King in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail

I’ve often written about that insight of MLK’s that pushing back against oppression nver happens calmly: there’s always tension in getting out of Egypt. There’s always resistance. There are always people who want to kick the ball down the road, delay, delay, even if the problems grow worse in the meantime — after all, if it finally blows up, maybe it’ll be someone else’s problems.

When you fight for change it’s valid to ask how fast you should push it, how far you should try to go. As Barack Obama said some years ago, better is good: “The Civil Rights Act did not end racism, but it made things better. Social Security did not eliminate all poverty for seniors, but it made things better for millions of people. Do not let people tell you the fight’s not worth it because you won’t get everything you want.” Conversely Nixon was willing to implement a universal basic income during his presidency but a number of liberal Democratic senators condemned the bill for not going far enough. It died in the senate.

Of course neither the Civil Rights Act nor Social Security were small, incremental changes. They were huge changes in the way America did things, both of them a big honking deal. They were worth doing even though, as Obama says, they didn’t solve all the problems. Waiting until they were “well timed” would never have worked: for their opponents, “well timed” meant “never,” just as Dr. King said.

We don’t know how big change can be until we attempt it. In Eyes on the Prize, the classic PBS documentary about the Civil Right Movement, someone comments that before the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s, nobody was trying to integrate the bus lines. That seemed unattainable: they just wanted a few small but significant changes to the way they were treated. The segregationists of Montgomery balked at any change whatsoever so the movement wound up playing for all the marbles and won.

More recently, the rapid acceptance of gay marriage and gay rights generally has been staggering. While “wait until the old people die off” is not as effective a recipe for social change as people think — there’s no shortage of pissed-off young conservatives and misogynists — this is one case where it’s close to true. The minority that opposes gay rights and dreams of putting them to death grows smaller every year — though their solid lock on the Republican Party means gay rights still aren’t safe.

As Paul Campos says, we’re better off now than our ancestors (generally speaking). That could change if the misogynists and racists of the right get the power they crave, but for the moment it’s true. Problems can be fixed. Indomitable forces (“Segregation forever!” and the thousand-year Reich for instant) can be broken. Victory is not ensured. There’s no guarantee that the wrong will fail, the right prevail, and it may take a very long time to make it so. But it is not out of reach either.

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