While we pause in 2013 to remember historic milestones – both fortunate and unfortunate – in the tumultuous fight for justice in America, some of those actions and messages of 50 years ago retain clear lessons for today.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years ago this month, was a powerful call to action then, and gives us talking points for today’s heated social and political discussions. And I need to underscore talking because King gave us a document that was so respectful and, so totally without rancor, pointedly answering his critics who thought the peaceful actions against injustice in Birmingham were unwise. Today’s leaders in the loud, omnipresent, electronic public square need a refresher in King’s approach.
The Letter, which started out written on scraps of paper and newspaper edges, was on one hand a call to action, but a call to action to make America better. He asked his critics, mainly the white clergymen who had publicly denounced his leadership and the movement’s tactics, why aren’t you being more active to live up to Judeo-Christian principles and the vision of America’s founding fathers? That was the goal of King’s protests, his interracial team of activists, and the black citizens of Birmingham. And isn’t that the goal today for people across the political and economic spectrums – to have a better life and restore America as a leader in the world? In King’s words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
The black-and-white images of the Birmingham police turning water hoses and snarling dogs on children and adults peacefully gathered in Kelly Ingram Park may seem to the current generation like a silent movie. Believe me, this was not Hollywood or a video game; this was America’s real disgrace. Those who were alive in 1963 are still rattled by those scenes, which woke up those living outside the South, and the media, to the everyday horrors of segregation.
The Letter is brilliant in illuminating the problems of the time. Yet there is no anger, setting out in King’s words to be “patient and reasonable.” He respected his fellow men of the cloth even though he stated clearly they were wrong. He did lecture, pointing out the clerics were going against their biblical training by causing anger where they should be quieting the waters. What King does is make the argument that even though I disagree with you, it is my responsibility to provide an example. It would be wonderful if that approach were an automatic test of contemporary leadership.
In the archives of protest literature of the 20th century, the Letter stands the test of time. The tone of it allows people to realize that debate can be reasoned and measured. It is not accusatory. He emphasizes that within the context of America, there has always been an opportunity to fulfill American traditions. And those principles are restated through Biblical references. He didn’t need research; he was drawing from the wellspring of church meetings and the formal education given “the son, the grandson and, the great-grandson of preachers.”
He defends civil disobedience. “It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. “
He gives us poetry. “As in so many past experiences, our hopes have been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us.”
I would hope more teachers place the Letter on their required reading lists, just as they’ve done with addresses written by Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and develop debating teams around its themes. This is one of King’s better argued pieces, and better written. Halls can echo with the question “will we be extremists for hate or for love?” People today can look around our cities, suburbs, and isolated regions and defend the “disinherited children of God.”
By this time in his public career, a few years after he became a leader of the Civil Rights Movement during the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1955, King knew he had a broad audience and not just the clergyman he was answering. When I talked to Ralph Abernathy about this letter, he said at this time King knew every word he said was under a microscope. He was trying to answer the big question. Maybe he would have been surprised at the endurance of his words – words that tell us to be prepared for every opportunity.
But the message King bravely issued from a Southern jail hasn’t diminished. It is relevant to say that regardless of your station, whether you are a politician or a man of God, nothing should stop you from confronting evil. It really says just because you want to change something you are not anti-American. Now the debate is “if you say something, you are one or the other.” He wanted people, even 50 years into a different America, to know that we have to change while change is possible to make America better.
Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture