Martin Luther King Jr and Open Borders

Post by Paul Crider (regular blogger for the site, joined June 2013 as an occasional blogger, promoted to regular blogger July 2013). See:

Since I believe one of the best strategies for the opening of the world’s borders is to cast it as a civil rights issue, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to some of the classical rhetorical pieces of the American Civil Rights Movement and read them in the light of free migration. There is one readily apparent similarity between racial segregation and immigration restrictions. Racial segregation limits the mobility of certain persons on the morally arbitrary basis of the color of their skin, and this is done regardless of whether people on the “other side” of the segregation are willing to interact peacefully. A closed border restricts mobility and voluntary, peaceful interaction on the morally arbitrary basis of which side of the border a person happened to be born on.

The work and rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr seems like the obvious place to begin. In April 1963, King organized marches and sit-ins of public spaces in Birmingham, Alabama, intentionally violating the segregation laws of the time that proscribed blacks from sharing certain public and private spaces with whites. King was arrested and jailed, and from his cell he wrote what became known as his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In the letter King responds to critics who have urged him to pursue his goals of racial equality with patience and through legal channels, rather than violating the laws of the land. There is already a parallel here to the demands of immigration restrictionists that aspiring migrants “wait in line” despite the fact that there is no real “line” for many migrants.

King begins his letter defending himself against charges of being an “outside agitator” stirring up trouble in a place where he isn’t welcome. The following doesn’t really relate to open borders in an obvious way, but it’s a beautiful statement of the kind of cosmopolitanism that underpins the call to open borders.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

He moves on to defend the timing of his nonviolent activism and his decision to act directly rather than wait for political negotiations to bear fruit.

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 so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

The connection I’d like to draw here is that aspiring migrants who are scared or otherwise hesitant to migrate through unofficial channels have no political voice with which to negotiate for their rights to enter the land of their choosing. Migrants who are willing to brave the move without legal authorization of the host country gain no political voice by doing so, but by acting directly, seizing their rights in spite of the law, they raise the probability of reform just by virtue of their presence. Without the legal tension created by the presence of illegal immigrants, there would likely never be any movement toward opening borders, regardless of how powerful the arguments for open borders might be. Such arguments would be hopelessly academic.

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, 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.”

For years now we have heard the words “Wait in line!” It rings in the ear of every migrant with piercing familiarity. This “Wait in line” has almost always meant “Never.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

One of the most powerful paragraphs in the letter. When I read this I thought of the environment of uncertainty in which immigrants in the US live, especially in places like Joe Arpaio’s Arizona, where immigrants and suspected immigrants have suffered popularly lauded degradations like forced marches in pink underwear, meals of moldy bread and rotten fruit, and childbirth given in shackles. While in the rest of America, undocumented immigrants live constantly at tiptoe stance, lest some traffic violation result in their deportation following indefinite detention in a jail cell. And this is all for the equivalent of a cup of coffee at the lunch counter: the right to live and work peacefully among those born within the border.

Meanwhile millions of our brothers and sisters in the undeveloped world smother in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of the affluent societies of the developed world, their tongues twisted and speech stammering, explaining to their children why they can’t move to the places where work is plentiful, water is clean, and wages are high.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

The last line speaks to one of the less savory arguments against open borders: that the global poor suffer their lots because they are less intelligent or lack the work ethic of the citizens of the rich world or some other failing. After more discussion of the differences between just and unjust laws, King sets up one of his chief foils: the white moderate.

[I] must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

It isn’t the racists or the committed nativists and nationalists who are the biggest roadblocks in the way of open borders. We will never win them over and it’s barely worth the effort of trying beyond countering their arguments for the benefit of observers. The great roadblock consists of basically sympathetic people who are nonetheless wary of the apparent radicalism of open borders; or people who simply do not realize the scale of humanitarian benefits on the table; or those who have no problem with immigrants personally, but assume that immigration must be zero-sum, with jobs gained by foreigners equaling jobs lost to natives.

The point of this post is not to twist Dr King’s eloquence to favor open borders. I have no idea if he believed in open borders or if he gave the matter much thought either way. The point is to take the words of this celebrated moral leader and use them to show how the civil rights for which he struggled parallel the rights of international immigration. At root, these rights are expressions of the universal moral equality of human beings. King’s sphere of concern certainly extended beyond African-Americans and far beyond America’s national borders. In a speech against US involvement in the Vietnam War, he made this call to cosmopolitan compassion:

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

 

3 thoughts on “Martin Luther King Jr and Open Borders”

  1. “It isn’t the racists or the committed nativists and nationalists who are the biggest roadblocks in the way of open borders. We will never win them over and it’s barely worth the effort of trying beyond countering their arguments for the benefit of observers.” I think this is a very accurate and well-phrased comment.

    Also, if advocates choose to frame open borders as a civil rights issue, they must be prepared for objections that the worldwide immigration situation is different from the mid-20th century struggles of African-Americans. For example, black Americans were citizens who were trying to make real the constitutional rights they already had, whereas migrants are non-citizens who want to create rights they lack and (some will argue) are not entitled to.

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