In preparation for the observance of Martin Luther King Weekend, I decided to read King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." We all know his "I have a Dream" speech, in which he articulates a vision of equality, when a person would be judged on the basis of character and not color of skin. It is a powerful speech, but perhaps we forget that it is a dream that won't be fulfilled on the basis of simple wishes and dreams. It is a vision that involves direct action, a commitment to making sure that justice does prevail.
In April 1963, when I was but five years old, Dr. King wrote a rather lengthy letter from his Birmingham Jail Cell. He wrote this to Moderate White Clergy, who might have shared the dream, but were unwilling to work for it. Indeed, they chastised Dr. King for his "illegal" activities, and suggested that he be more patient. Dr. King responded powerfully, not only defending his non-violent use of civil disobedience, but placing it in broader context.
As I read the letter, I must look at my own self. I stand in the center, so to speak. I'm not much of a civil disobedience sort of person. I've not put myself on the line to be arrested. I'm more comfortable using other means to achieve the ends of justice. So, I hear this as a prodding to not get complacent about injustice.
I would encourage you to read the letter in its full, to hear Dr. King's powerful message, and to give you a taste I excerpt this powerful paragraph from that letter. Meditate upon it and consider what Dr. King is saying to us today, about the issues that stand before us today. And as you read this, do so in the spirit of hope that Dr. King shared in the final sentence of this 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."
To read the entire letter, click here.Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.