The recently concluded race for Mecklenburg County district attorney reminded me of nothing so much as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” — with the incumbent prosecutor and most of our community cast in the role of the go-slow clergy whom Dr. King criticized in his famous missive: We had a chance to embrace profound change in service to justice, but instead opted for the perceived comfort and safety of the status quo.
Criminal defense attorney Tim Emry sought to overhaul the prosecutor’s office by promoting racial justice, ending policies that lead to mass incarceration, vowing to never seek the death penalty, avoiding the criminalization of children, and holding the police accountable for their abuses.
While Emry’s campaign proposed an end to business as usual, Merriweather promised more of the same: Perhaps nothing signified his go-slow approach quite like his campaign’s Twitter bio, which described his vision as one of “inching toward a world where justice reigns.”
At a moment when institutional racism, police violence, and injustice in our courts, jails, and prisons cry out for fundamental change, Merriweather proposed to merely tidy up, and to do so at a crawl.
Indeed, he couldn’t even bring himself to acknowledge the injustices at play in the criminal justice system that he helps to run, inequities plain to anyone who looks.
Consider Merriweather’s thoughts as reflected on his campaign website: “[Q]uestions about bias in our justice system erode trust in its legitimacy.” It’s not the system’s treatment of Black, brown, and poor people that “erodes trust,” according to Merriweather, but rather the “questions” posed by critics who point out how frequently and disproportionately the system places powerless people in its crosshairs.
And more: “Some community members have raised concerns about how the criminal justice system impacts people of color and the economically disadvantaged.” Again, Merriweather couldn’t bring himself to say the criminal justice system actually treats people of color and poor people unfairly; he could only acknowledge that some people say so.
Then he dipped his toe into the pool of police violence: “Violent encounters between citizens and law enforcement undermine community relations that are critical for a functional criminal justice system.” Nowhere to be found is an acknowledgement of any wrongdoing by law enforcement officers who inflict violence, just a generalized regret that when violence occurs — seemingly without an author or agent — it’s harder for Merriweather to do his job.
He concluded: “Frankly, there are many people who believe the criminal justice system does not serve them. And despite the work of many well-intentioned public servants, for many in our community, the courthouse does not engender feelings of trust.” This is not an admission that the cops and courts actually fail to serve some people and therefore require reform, but an observation that some individuals don’t feel like these institutions serve them — supplemented with a gratuitous sop to “well-intentioned public servants,” which no doubt helped earn Merriweather the endorsement of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.
In short, Merriweather’s vision for the criminal justice system found expression in a single word: stability. As he explained on his campaign website, “For our community to advance toward a criminal justice system in which we all can believe, we need leadership that prioritizes stability and integrity.”
No big changes.
No radical reforms.
No fundamental overhauls.
It’s an approach that prompted the Charlotte Observer to laud Merriweather’s “firm, practical leadership” and “pragmatism” while endorsing his reelection.
All of this boils down to a simple message, attitude, and strategy: Go slow.
Eight religious figures delivered the same advice to Dr. King in April 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, where the civil rights leader had traveled to participate in a non-violent campaign to challenge the city’s seemingly intractable segregation.
“Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we will have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems,” the group of pastors, priests, and rabbis wrote to Dr. King.
“However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
Those seeking change need to employ “proper channels,” the holy men wrote, while avoiding the sort of “extreme measures” advocated by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The advice of these eight clergy may be fairly characterized as advocating for a reliance on “firm, practical” leadership and an attitude of “pragmatism” with the aim of “inching toward a world where justice reigns” — the very spirit that animated Merriweather’s recent campaign.
Dr. King was having none of it in Birmingham, and he drafted his letter to explain why. At its core, his criticism had one target: the go-slow, not-yet attitude of the respectable members of the Birmingham community, as embodied in the men of cloth who drafted the epistle to which King responded.
“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham,” King wrote. “But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
This criticism may be fairly applied to Merriweather’s concern not with the palpable injustices of our criminal justice system, but with people’s feelings toward those injustices, which he suggested are more perceived than real.
King then knocked down the argument that it’s not the right time for non-violent, direct action: “Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable 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 a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.'”
In its endorsement of Merriweather, the Observer made an argument about timing similar to the one rejected by Dr. King, writing, “We also think [Merriweather’s] pragmatism is needed in a county where safety currently ranks among the public’s chief concerns.” Translation: Right now is not the time to worry about systemic reform aimed at achieving racial justice because people are concerned about street crime.
Two groups, according to King, played key roles in advancing this well-meaning, not-now perspective during the Civil Rights Era: white moderates and those African-Americans — small in King’s time and larger now — with an interest in not shaking up existing arrangements too aggressively.
As to the former, King called them “the greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom,” worse for civil rights than “the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner.” That’s because, he wrote, white moderates are “more devoted to order than justice.” Explained King, “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.”
Modern-day analogs of King’s white moderates now reside in wealthy, Democratic neighborhoods like Dilworth, Elizabeth, and Plaza-Midwood, where, no doubt, many of them proudly display colorful yard signs proclaiming, “We Believe Black Lives Matter.”
As to the latter, King saw “complacency” among “a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses.”
Spencer Merriweather, by his position and power, certainly occupies a similar place vis-a-vis the criminal justice system as it currently operates, a position where his professional interests counsel insensitivity to the injustices that surround him or, when he occasionally can’t help but notice the inequities, an inadequate, half-hearted incrementalism.
Just as these two fundamentally conservative interests joined forces in King’s day to push back against his campaign for disruptive change, so have they united in our deep-blue, Democratic community to further entrench the status quo and remind us of our own “lukewarm” interest in the kind of radical reform that King sought and justice commands.