“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.” ~Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963
Thank you Kirwan Inst. and kudos to Jamaal Bell. I teach middle school civics and we’re studying Dr. King’s letter and how it relates to the civil rights movement as it’s covered in our textbook and the 14th Amendment. I think that both having a variety of narrators rather than a single actor portraying King or merely reading the letter, combine with the still images and historic footage you’ve woven together made this a more meaningful and compelling piece- especially for rural, mostly white Iowa eighth graders in 2018, who otherwise may not have understood or appreciated the letter as well.
When I re-read or re-teach this letter, I am reminded of Dr. King’s intelligence, patience, compassion, and insight. This letter has inspired me to write poems and blog posts and paint paintings.
This year, however, just as Dr. King wrote it in response to well intentioned white clergy fifty-five years ago, I wish I could introduce it to all the well-meaning white Christians, especially moderates and conservatives.
King, speaking to clergymen after all, even though it’s an “open” letter that the entire world was privy to in newspapers and magazines, alluded to several saints, philosophers and scriptures. He referrers to the teachings and examples of Jesus frequently in the letter.
These days, my family, friends and neighbors don’t understand the protests over police brutality in the last 2-3 years in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Baltimore, etc. They saw white supremacists demonstrating in Charlotteville, VA and somehow they blamed former President Obama for being racially divisive during his time in office.
President Trump started his campaign off by describing Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists and started his administration off by calling for a ban on travel and immigration from predominantly Muslim countries.
Just this week Attorney General Jeff Sessions let slip during remarks to law enforcement officials in Washington that he thinks that sheriffs’ have an”Anglo–American heritage.”
My own Congressman, Steve King (R) of Iowa has opposed immigration because he doesn’t think we can restore our “superior culture” with “other people’s babies.” King has met with and admires Tomio Okamura, the leader of a neo-fascist white supremacist party in the Czech Republic.
As much as people would like to think that we’re more enlightened than Americans were in 1963 or have somehow achieved racial harmony, but obviously we haven’t. I fear that too many of us ARE the “white moderates” that Doctor King criticized in this letter.
We have become complacent or numb to injustice and inequalities. We’re reluctant to recognize let alone repent of our own latent racism. Many of us our even either in denial about or oblivious to institutional forms of racism and the racism of many of our leaders, either because recognizing it would mean having to do something about it or worse, recognizing it would reflect poorly on ourselves. We don’t want to admit that we could possibly be wrong.
Then there’s women’s inequality. Why do we hesitate to equate sexism with racism? Are they not the same? I think that when King talks about Austrian philosopher Martin Buber’s discussion about “I and Thou” rather than “I-It,” we could apply that to women as well as to people of color. Don’t we too often treat women as things rather than people?
And of course today discussion of LGBT rights is much more prominent than in the 1960’s. Even if you have difficulties getting past religious qualms about non-traditional (“non-binary”) sexuality, its impossible to get around that the Constitution’s requirements of equal protection and due process for all, regardless of race, creed, gender, and political persuasion. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who it’s against or what your motivation.
This year, what made an impression on me was King’s discussion about just and unjust laws. Too many politicians have been using the argument about following the “rule of law” to whip up anger and indignation against DACA “Dreamer”immigrants, who’s parents brought them to this country when they were young children and who essentially have never known any country (home) than this one, but now face deportation decades later.
Doctor King handles head-on the fact that morality and justice are more important than the letter-of-the law, especially when state or local laws are abused by those in power to discriminate, segregate, or violate the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. Had he been a judge or a lawyer rather than a pastor and organizer, he probably would’ve quoted the Fourteenth Amendment directly.
I wish my loved ones would realize that when laws are inadequate, unclear, or unfair, it is our responsibility to revise, reform, or replace them. And that challenging them, protesting, sometimes even deliberately breaking them are all part of our constant democratic process.
I feel like ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ is a masterpiece of writing. Personally, I consider it part of the broader American “unwritten-constitution,” along side things like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Washington’s farewell address or Teddy Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and along side his own ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which he made just four or five months after he wrote this.
If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to find a copy. If you have about an hour that you’d otherwise end up using on Netflix or YouTube anyway, watch the video linked to at the top of this blog post. Consider it kind of an audio version of this letter. My prayer is that it will impact you half as much as it has me.