The “outside agitator” trope, asked and answered

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl
5 min readJun 4, 2020

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Like so many, perhaps too many, I spent June 1 assembling lists of books, articles, podcasts, hashtags for sending out. Too many items on my list were more lists or even lists of lists on anti-racist teaching and living. Yikes.

The value was in pointing recognizing the wealth of writers, thinkers, voices all around us, living now, speaking now, as we do when we commit to Disrupt Texts and Teach Living Poets. We humanities teachers should look to that work for inspiration, leadership, and a place for our own contributions. (By now you can tell that although I’ve wandered in life, my hometown is with the Humanities teachers.)

But being “an old” now, I thought that having made too many lists, I might take a different tack. When we look to the canon or to our central curricular concerns, we can also see some sense of what we already knew, what we should know because it has been in front of us all along. What questions are people asking now that have, actually, been “asked and answered.”

Do you teach Letter from Birmingham Jail?

A handwritten copy of ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’

Yesterday I posted a talk by James Baldwin. (Really, just stop everything and read Baldwin.) Today I thought, well, there’s all this talk in the media about “outside agitators” at otherwise peaceful protests. Other folks have argued against the “trope of outside agitators.” That question has also been “asked, and answered,” and it is central to one of the core texts in the secondary ELA curriculum: Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Indeed, this text is so canonical that David Coleman’s definitional workshops presenting the Common Core vision of “close reading” for EngageNY were built around it.

We’ve got the text, but what’s a ‘trope’

Literature teachers know the word trope, particularly in its modern usage, to refer to a figure of speech or common phrasing that is used recurringly. Not quite a cliche, which implies a sort of a thoughtless filler of language; more like a little language package that carries some old, infectious meaning along with it as it is used. It’s like a virus — a bit of language DNA with an infectious meaning/message inside.

“Outside agitator” is a trope because it is a phrase that carries more meaning than just the denotation the a person comes from outside and a person has agitated something. King will put it in quotes to emphasize it as a carrier of racist ideas that are imported into a conversation wherever it is used.

So on we go to the letter itself

Letter from Birmingham Jail originates as a clap back to a statement published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen, who criticized the march and similar civil rights demonstrations and blamed “outside agitators.” King explains how he came to be there, was in fact invited to be there, and then he adds eloquently the counterargument: he refuses to be characterized as an outsider:

…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.

And so, anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

And there is a second, even more important response to the idea of the outsider agitator in this paragraph that follows a critique of the clergymen’s commending the police for “maintaining order”:

I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. There will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. There will be the old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” There will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Implicit in this recognition of the many Alabamans who organized and led numerous protests is a push back against the idea that there would be no problem in Birmingham if “outsiders” hadn’t riled things up, that local folks were just fine until those outsiders put ideas in their heads, and that people in these parts couldn’t possibly figure out how to organize themselves unless someone else was helping them. Need we unpack this? Nah, we can hear it plainly.

And so the phrase has become understood as a racist trope. And some would argue that the Letter represents a pivot point, one marked by profound disappointment in White moderates, in King’s developing social and political thought. Let’s not use it and encourage others not to use it.

In this Vox Explainer, Law professor Justin Hansford goes into more depth regarding the use of this term in describing more recent protests, including the distinction between those who come to support a movement because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and those who come to infiltrate or exploit the movement, but Martin Luther King had already laid out the argument. Asked, and answered.

There are so many excellent, online materials for teaching The Letter that I won’t bother to link any. The Google machine will work well in this case.

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Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

Executive Director of the National Writing Project (nwp.org). Find me at the NWP in Berkeley, CA and online at @elyseea.