Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Jr: Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Today we celebrate the life and contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr. This week, a friend suggested that I read the letter that King wrote from Birmingham Jail in 1963, and I was struck by how relevant his words still are today.

King was arrested during a peaceful Civil Rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, April 1963. He was kept in solitary confinement for 8 days. On the day he was arrested, a group of Christian and Jewish church leaders in Birmingham printed a statement denouncing the "extreme" and "impatient" actions of the demonstrators. Disappointed by the lack of understanding in what he called "men of genuine good will," King wrote an eloquent, ten-page response to their statement. (You can read the entire letter, and hear an audio snippet here.)

King's letter takes each of the clergymen's complaints to task, explaining patiently (but urgently) that immediate, direct action was in fact necessary on every level. He wrote (and this is a tiny piece of an incredibly stirring passage that you should go read in its entirety):

For years now I have heard the word "wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never"...Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim...you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
One of the problems that Martin Luther King, Jr. writes about in his letter has been and will continue to be a problem throughout time: "the appalling silence of the good people." He writes:
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
It is painfully obvious that discrimination, hate, and injustice are still very much alive in our world. These things, unfortunately, did not end with the Civil Rights Act, though many of the blatant, government-sanctioned segregation practices did. And you don't have to live in the roughest parts of Los Angeles, or Baltimore, or New Orleans to see that racial conflict is alive and kicking. You can see it right here in Maine in the recent hate crimes directed at Somali refugees, you can see it in small Northern Wisconsin towns in tensions between the White and Native American populations. You can probably see it right in your own town, without having to look very hard.

In this world, where hate and prejudice are still allowed to thrive (and often in sneaky and subtle ways) we have to be extra vigilant that we do not become part of the "appalling silence" that King points to. It's much easier to stand aside, stay quiet, and maintain that "lukewarm acceptance" than it is to actively stand up, reach out, and work towards a deeper understanding of someone who might seem different from ourselves.

My friend Judy says we need to give each person an "extravagant welcome." That means renouncing "lukewarm acceptance" and opening ourselves more fully and generously than we might even think possible. King calls it being an "extremist for love." I struggle with this constantly. I hope I will continue to struggle, that all of us will continue to struggle, to do the hard work, and become extremists for love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. calls for at the end of his letter:
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.

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