Monday we celebrate the life of a man who has been dead longer than he lived. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., walked the earth for 39 years and April 4 will mark the 49th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.
Reflecting on the events of 2016 and the upcoming King holiday, I had to go back and reread King’s April 16, 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’m always taken by its opening “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” I don’t know why those opening words have always impacted me so. I used to think preachers were something holier than us mere mortals, but King’s letter disabused me of that thought back in high school.
King was responding to an April 12 letter from eight Birmingham clergymen that urged citizens of the city to not participate in the effort to desegregate Birmingham. These clergymen were considered liberal and progressive.
It is helpful to understand the 1960s Birmingham. The city’s nickname was Bombingham for the number of homes and churches and black businesses bombed by terrorists. The city was totally segregated. When local black leaders, called Negroes then, tried to negotiate with city leaders they were either met with disdain or were lied to.
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The clergy wrote, “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.”
The clergymen closed their letter with these words: “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham....”
King responded by taking his colleagues to Bible study. “First, I must confess,” King wrote, “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.’...”
King then makes some interesting comparisons. “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? ... Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”
Though it’s been almost 50 years since his death, much of the antagonistic fear of the “other” remains. The gains in equality are unmistakable, but, as King wrote in his letter, “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.”
Personally, I will use this King holiday as a reminder, as if I needed one, that the struggle continues. King ended his letter by writing, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
As we have witnessed, that distant tomorrow has not yet arrived.