Today seems like a good day to remember the passion and eloquence of one of my heroes.
Fifty-four years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was sitting in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, writing a letter. He’d read criticism by fellow clergymen of his work for civil rights and was penning his own response. He scribbled in the margins of a newspaper and finished on scraps of paper.
Why was an outsider (Dr. King) in Birmingham? He had been invited, he said. But more than that, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
I read that letter a long time ago as part of an English class on American classics. A letter, penned in a southern jail. By the time I read it, Dr. King was dead. The kid sitting next to me in class was African-American. I thought racism was over and Dr. King’s letter, while beautiful, was no longer relevant.
Then I grew up. Dr. King’s words still stick with me. He spoke the truth that remains true today. And he wrote them for all of us, an appeal to reject injustice.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
What he wrote had to be difficult to read, especially in Birmingham. He didn’t shy away from confrontation; he even embraced it if it meant shaking off prejudice and hate.
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, we 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.
Dr. King called for civil disobedience, a time-honored tradition in our country which values its liberty.
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.
He wasn’t kind to white moderates and questioned their complacency as he recalled an extremist who hung on the cross for his words and actions. He called Jesus “an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”
The letter is long. It’s uncomfortable to read. But even if times have changed, injustice remains for so many of our brothers and sisters. I believe, every day it hurts all of us. I’d love to see every child grow up in a healthy environment, go to good schools and look forward to a bright future. We deprive all of us when we allow one of us to be so deprived.
Dr. King’s last sentence is a prayer for our country.
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.
Want to read Dr. King’s eloquent words yourself? The whole letter is here.