I heard a story once about newlyweds learning to fight. Every time a conflict broke out the couple would follow the same script. She’d lock herself in the bathroom and he’d stand outside the door begging her to come out. Her silence gave her all the power and left him with only two unattractive options: End the argument unresolved and ignored or keep talking through a piece of wood to a piece a wood.
Then the husband did something absolutely brilliant: He took the doorknobs off. Without a place to retreat, she had to talk when disagreements arose, or at least share a room with him. And that increased that chances that peace could be reached.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contemporaries, I think, did the same thing.
White America had done Black America wrong from the days of slavery to the days of Emmett Till but refused to talk about it. White America’s leadership locked itself in the bathroom, leaving Black America’s leadership (it may have seemed) with only two unattractive options: End the arguing unresolved or keep talking to people who aren’t listening. The folks in the bathroom, as they always do, held the power. Until the doorknobs came off.
The Media made it impossible to hide in 1955:
After Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury, they boasted in an interview with Look magazine about their crime. Some white Americans, previously defending the killers, could do so no longer. They started listening to the other side.
Numbers made it impossible to dismiss the other side’s perspective outright:
It’s psychological fact that we humans have an easier time dismissing a point of view when it’s fringe. When you’re the only one who thinks as you do I can more easily call you crazy or wrong and refuse to listen to you any longer. But if there are lots of people standing with you, reputable credible articulate and intelligent people, well, it’s not so easy to ignore you then. I naturally begin asking myself when your crowd gathers and mine begins to thin if I might be wrong and you just might be right. In 1957 Martin Luther King, Charles K. Steele, and Fred L. Shuttlesworth established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, electing Martin Luther King, Jr. the first president. Non-violent boycotts, marches, prayer meetings and other gatherings of the crowd began immediately.
Extreme behavior created common ground:
It’s a little like what scientists call triangulation. What happens when one person treats two people badly? The two poorly treated people bond over their common dislike of the third person’s bad behavior. The more extreme the bad behavior, the tighter the bond. It’s this weird tendency we humans have to join over shared disdain. Make fun of someone’s family and see how much tighter the family becomes, regardless of their previous differences. America is never more united than after a common crisis like 9/11 or a hurricane. A common enemy can provide common ground. When Eugene “Bull” Connor used dogs and fire-hoses on black demonstrators in 1963 he gave Black and White America something to be against together. And that brought the day of dialogue and one America closer.
Love without retreat made it hard not to listen:
It’s easy to justify plugging my ears when you’re yelling at me. But not if you’re friendly, refusing to be angry while refusing to leave me alone. It’s easy to dismiss someone who vilifies us, but not someone who inspires us. It’s easy to ignore a rant, but not a dream. It’s hard to ignore someone who says over and over again “You’re wrong, I still love you, and I’m not going away.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s methods weren’t tenacious enough for some in the Civil Rights Movement. But his critics stood on the other side of the bathroom door more often than not while Dr. King marched through it with a message of absolute ethics, relentless love and non-violence. Refusing to talk to the hateful who harm makes sense because doing otherwise can be called unproductive and even dangerous. Refusing to talk to love that has never harmed is irrational and will get you called unproductive and even dangerous.
I’m no expert. I’m just a guy with a bunch of books and a long drive home to think about all this stuff. But it seems to me like the the Civil Rights Movement in America succeeded in large part because its leaders (and sympathizers) took the doorknobs off, removing many obstacles to conversation between the two Americas. It’s good for me to remember that as well: that peace never breaks out – in a home, an office, or a nation – until the bathroom door opens and conversation begins.