It happened again the other day. One of my children came home and, at dinner, brought up the topic that comes up each year at this time. It shouldn't have surprised me. For years now, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been all about The Dream.
The dream, that is, as expressed in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Its words echo across the country as the King holiday approaches. It is broadcast over school loudspeakers. Famous sound bites -- about blacks and whites joining hands, about black children judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" -- are replayed on television, over the iconic image of King in front of the Lincoln Memorial, waving to the crowds that had marched on Washington with him on that late summer day in 1963.
When my children were very little, I loved to see them bubble with pride over what they had learned at school about King's most famous speech. Its message of integration and brotherly love resonated with their own lives as youngsters growing up in an interracial household. But as they grew older, I also wanted them to know something else -- something all young Americans should know. I want our young people to know that before the dream, there was the nightmare. I want them to learn about another piece of King's writing, one that lays out the path to his dream. I want them to learn about the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." (PDF File)
King's "I Have a Dream" speech is undoubtedly one of the great orations of the 20th century. I still remember sitting in front of a black and white console TV on the floor of our farmhouse in Mississippi, watching the report of the March on Washington and King's speech on the evening news, with the August heat hanging in the air. Unlike my children, I had only the vaguest inkling of what "I have a dream" meant. Although my parents had sheltered me from civil rights violence through our rural isolation, I must have known that Mississippi was still more of a nightmare than a dream.
Yet I fear that many Americans -- and schoolchildren in particular -- are getting a sanitized view of the civil rights movement with this solitary focus on the Dream speech. Powerful as it is, the speech has become both iconic and clichéd, presenting an uplifting image that's far from the whole story. The bombings, dogs and fire hoses of Birmingham in 1963, when the city's police commissioner, Bull Connor, chose to terrorize civil rights protesters, are fading into memory, replaced by a single triumphant moment, as if the way we live now came to be without pain or sacrifice.
We must never forget King's dream; but let us also not forget the nightmares he struggled with before and after. And he captured those in the eloquent letter he wrote to eight Alabama clergymen that April, a mere four months before his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," King wrote. Birmingham was indeed a bastion of injustice and segregation. Not only did it have the reputation of being the most segregated city in the South, but it had the greatest number of unsolved bombings of churches and civil rights workers' homes. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which was affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had asked King to bring nonviolent street protests to Birmingham to begin to crack its segregationist core.
As the protests progressed, a group of moderate white clergymen denounced them in an open letter to the Birmingham News. Expressing a fear of violence, they demanded an end to the demonstrations against segregated lunch counters, restrooms and stores, calling them "unwise and untimely." These men were among the most prominent religious leaders in the state of Alabama, representing Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Roman Catholic churches, as well as Reform Judaism.
After King was jailed on a charge of parading without a permit, he wrote the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to answer the clergymen. It was reprinted in the Christian Century magazine; excerpts in the Saturday Evening Post and other media outlets in August and September served as pre- and post-publicity for the March on Washington. The letter brought attention to the Birmingham movement and added to King's fame.
My first encounter with it came in 1976, in a philosophy class at the University of Mississippi, where I analyzed King's logic and read some of the sources he quoted on justice. It was my first exposure to King the thinker, rather than the preacher and orator. And what began as an academic exercise has had a lifelong impact on me.
If the "I Have a Dream" speech showcases Martin Luther King Jr.'s oratorical skills, the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" exhibits the depth of his intellect. In its handling of the themes of law and justice, it is a literary argument in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." To make its points, it evokes theologians and other thinkers from each of the traditions of the eight clergymen to whom it is directly addressed. King quotes a Catholic saint, Thomas Aquinas, on unjust law, the 20th-century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich on the sin of "separation," and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber to make the point that segregation relegated black Americans to "the status of things."
Despite the clergymen's pleas for moderation and patience, King knew that the struggles of black Americans could not wait. "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' " he wrote. "It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.' "
Although the letter is peppered with quotes from the likes of Saint Augustine, Socrates and T.S. Eliot, there is something in it for every level of reader. In my household, everyone from my second grader to my seventh grader has read parts of it, and all of them can find a passage that speaks to them. King tells us why the struggle for civil rights couldn't wait in words that all schoolchildren can understand: He talks of children denied access to amusement parks and of watching "ominous clouds of inferiority begin to form in [their] little mental sky"; of children asking their fathers why whites "treat colored people so mean"; and of adults suffering inhumane treatment, "harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro." "When you are fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness' -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait," he wrote.
The letter can inspire middle- and high-school students to discuss racism and injustice in American culture today. The statement "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" recently led my 12-year-old and me into an animated discussion of the injustices faced by some immigrants and the poor as well as the inequities we confront each day right here in Washington.
Times have changed, but many of the issues King tackled still play a role in our daily lives. Racism has not been eradicated from American culture today. It lingers in the shadows rather than showing its face in the light of day as it did on the streets of Birmingham in 1963. It has also morphed into issues of class and ethnicity as well as race. These are all issues young people need to discuss openly today, because they will be facing them throughout adulthood.
I'd like to see more schools reading and discussing the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." It is a piece of writing that inspires me each time I pick it up, and each time I read it I find something new in it.
So tomorrow, I plan to read the letter with my three children. I'll be reading it to them and with them, because in the words King wrote as he sat behind bars, waiting for justice, you can see the seeds of his great speech, the beginning of his dream, a vision of light. And I want my children -- all children -- to walk in that light.
W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of "Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past" (Basic Books).