That incredible sentence above is an excerpt from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written April 16, 1963. Since Black History Month became widely celebrated in schools across the U.S. by 1976, I’m sure this particular letter of Dr. King’s has been read a million times over. I read it first when in fifth grade as a source for my very first research paper.
I wasn’t yet born when this amazing writer and orator was murdered. Even so, Dr. King’s movement means a great deal to me. My appreciation for his eloquence grew as I was working on that paper so many years ago, but the full impact of his work and his history, carried a deeper meaning, in part because Memphis was my birthplace, and because my parents had a very different opinion of Dr. King that left me bewildered for years to follow.
I was excited that day to hurry home and bombard my parents with questions. I knew they were young in the 60s, so they would probably know a lot about the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, this was all prior to delving into research, so I had no idea that Dr. King was murdered, that riots and random acts of violence had turned Memphis inside out before and after the assassination, and since they’d never talked about it in my presence, I had no idea the strong feelings my parents had about 1968.
They had moved a hundred miles east of Memphis in 1972. We still visited often enough for me to fall in love with the buildings, bridges, and noisy traffic. Without fail, on every drive back home, Mama and Daddy would vow in haggard voices never to live in that city again. When I asked why, they gave me no real answer.
The evening that I came home with my assignment, Mama and Daddy finally told me the reason we didn’t live in Memphis any more was directly related to Martin Luther King, Jr.. Shortly after Dr. King arrived to help end the sanitation strikes, riots occurred downtown. They lived a few miles away, so neither of them were witnesses to exactly what happened, but within hours, and for weeks afterward, their own neighborhood became a series of crime scenes. A distant cousin was stabbed to death, my mother’s and father’s siblings were attacked multiple times walking from school or work, my paternal grandfather was shot at, twice. My mother was harassed walking to and from the grocery store. Cars were vandalized, homes vandalized; gunfire and screams could be heard every night.
Their descriptions were scary. When asked about that year, Grandpa compared his hometown to the war zone he’d left back in Europe two decades before. By 1970 he had scraped together enough cash to purchase land in a rural county, moved east and encouraged my parents to do so, too. My maternal grandfather was ill at that time, too fragile to travel, and Mama couldn’t consider leaving her mother alone with the burden of his care. Crime became a constant, and no amount of government programs seemed to alleviate the grip poverty had on half the city. As time passed, my parents began to share the opinion of many city dwellers: Dr. King had brought nothing but trouble to Memphis. And the man who shot King just brought more trouble. They were resentful, scared, saddened, young but already weary.
My parents did what so many are guilty of today—blaming a negative outcome on one person without considering all of the facts. Since they were in a poor, working class neighborhood, they were aware of racial tensions prior to the arrival of Dr. King and his entourage. But those tensions were nothing like what was happening in larger cities, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods plagued by unemployment and drugs. My grandfather, when pressed, reckoned that everyone was tired after long workdays or night shifts so there was no energy left over for stirring up fights with the neighbors. The real violence only occurred in areas of idleness. Even so, he admitted they were sitting on a powder keg.
Unlike my parents, my father’s father held no blame for Dr. King even though the powder keg, as he called it, seemed to ignite with those first few steps of the downtown march. He held no blame, and he had no interest in remaining in that “diverse” city as it worked, or burned, through all its problems. My elders agreed on only one point—they wanted to live in silent safety.
I mulled over their opinions that weekend, feeling inexplicably ashamed as I read through the first few sources for my paper. Two weeks later, as the assignment required, I read my work aloud in class. The last paragraph consisted of an excerpt from Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Mr. Weatherly’s eyes were damp as he stood to applaud. I got an A+.
Though I cited the most popular of Dr. King’s works in the paper, it was the Letter From a Birmingham Jail that had resonated most with me. He’d been criticized by white church leaders for an “untimely” arrival, and accused of being an “outsider”, an “agitator”. These were church leaders who, prior to his arrest, had verbally supported desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. Once the eyes of the nation were on them, however, they spoke out against King’s methods. The letter is written in response to that criticism, and it is a beautiful, eloquent, intelligent, lovingly chastising literary marvel that could be used as a teaching tool in classes ranging from Philosophy to History to Christian Studies, to American Literature.
Within the letter, Dr. King cites Greek philosophy in equal measure with the Bible. He puts forth reasonable arguments, enlightening analogies, with the epitome of polite articulation. Within the letter, he explains that the greatest danger to civil rights is not the KKK or other white supremacist groups, “but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …” This resonated in my ten year old heart, though I couldn’t at the time put the words together to explain just why.
Mr. Weatherly was a great encouragement, referring to me as a “mature writer” in fifth grade. He was kind when other teachers didn’t really take the time for kindness and encouragement. He and Dr. King are forever woven together in my memories.
Of course, thirty plus years after my first research paper and my discovery of Dr. King’s importance, I can now articulate why the Letter From a Birmingham Jail resonated so—my family members were among the “moderate whites” who preferred order over justice. Likewise, I can now, almost, understand how my parents came to the conclusion that order was more important than justice.
As impoverished workers, my parents spared no time to seeking out higher education in the hopes of gaining better employment, they spared no time to community service, or church functions; they worked twelve hour days and tended to three kids every evening, visited their parents on weekends. They couldn’t afford newspaper or magazine subscriptions, and were in bed by the time the ten o’clock news aired. They became accustomed to being insulated from the outside world. They liked their lives within the confines of that insulation. During the long dark months of attacks and threats and nighttime gunfire, during that time of the outside world encroaching upon their comfortable boundaries, they were frightened and miserable.
When drawn into conversation on the topic, and according to numerous childhood interactions, it’s obvious my parents were not racist. They wished no one any harm, but they didn’t quite think on such a grand scale as social progress—they only planned short term, they kept their family close, and hoped for a good night’s sleep after long workdays. Though I didn’t see it as much in my paternal grandfather as in my maternal grandmother, it’s apparent to me now that Mama and Daddy had learned to live with a poverty mindset. They spared no time or effort on social troubles, because, in their minds they could no more afford those expenditures than they could afford wasting their meager paychecks.
Not once in my entire childhood did I ever witness my parents making long term plans. They never made comments in passing like, “when you graduate high school”, or “on our twentieth anniversary” the way parents of my friends often did. My parents lived week by week, month by month.
How many people live like that now? How many people are so worn down by a poverty mindset that they cannot afford time spent on prayers or action for the sake of human rights? How many are so fearful and miserable, feeling so inferior that the only shred of control they can exert is to keep their family close, and the curtains closed to the outside world? Perhaps my parents would have, economically and otherwise, fit in with the “moderate whites”. People who, when pressed into the conversation, would agree that the Civil Rights Movement was timely and necessary, but when pressed to act in support, they would fear the dangers of change outweighing the very present (but quieter) dangers all around.
The U.S. hasn’t yet shaken off the shame of its past, hasn’t yet rid itself of the struggle between people of different skin tones. The past two years have been particularly volatile in cities and towns overburdened by unemployment and poverty; cities and towns with a predominately black population and predominately white law enforcement agents. Fear is steadily climbing since the election of Donald Trump. The Bible informs us that anger is borne of fear, not of righteousness. When a person acts in anger, there is an underlying fear fueling the action. When a mob acts in anger …
Dr. King was appalled that church leaders considered him an extremist, but a reader can clearly see as he works through explaining his methodology for peaceful protest that he comes to conclusion that he is in fact a creative extremist. I love that. His creative extremism inspired so many people to refuse to meet hate with hate. Sadly, no one is shouting a message of peace so beautifully today. Politicians and the occasional “spiritual” leader speak of unity for the sake of unity. How can we unite with groups who moments before were spewing hate? How do we work through this to inspire the haters to understand hate and anger are just fear in disguise? What is everyone so afraid of?
Perhaps the bigger question is how can we inspire the indifferent, the well-insulated, the apathetic to look directly into the face of their nation? How do we cure the poverty-stricken mindsets?
1968 was a scary time. As history tells us, things didn’t cool down for a while. Many black and white Memphians walked on eggshells for years afterward. What’s going on now? Social media makes it a bit more difficult to remain insulated. Likewise, it makes it more difficult for interested parties to discern fact from falsehoods, but one thing is obvious: People are still missing the point.
Dr. King recognized that the government, the richest of citizens, the churches, could never delete the atrocities of the past and could never begin to make up for centuries of oppression. Reparations were impossible and he moved on from that possibility, moved right on past blame and shame to something more important: the present. His message was to work in the present, to rely on the power of knowledge and the solace of biblical wisdom, and to rise above petty hopes for revenge and violence. His message included, “nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” Another beautiful statement.
Likewise, he didn’t try to shame anyone who craved to lash out. It was understandable, that need to defend oneself, the hope to inflict hurt for hurt. He demanded better of himself, though, and used his knowledge, his Bible, and his eloquence to inspire others to demand more of themselves. He put men and women through training before letting them join in the protests, ensuring they could take punches, spittle, hurled trash and insults, all without reciprocating. He expected his protesters to not fear criminal records, weeks in brutal jailhouses, to take the punishment of the law and do it all again, and again.
Dr. King warned the church leaders that if more people were not given the message of nonviolent direct protest and inspired to employ it in their search for liberation, that young black people would be left with no alternative than the Black Nationalist Movement—a movement of avenging violence. He warned that if this became the reality, then the nation would be lost in a racial nightmare. It must have been exhausting for him to see so clearly the horrible possibilities after so many years of struggle to do right.
I am a fortunate person. Yes, I grew up poor and insulated, but my curiosity and love for reading delivered me from the confines of insulation where I could learn facts and find faith in great Americans. Where I could develop my own opinions, and my own hopes for fairness. I am fortunate because the people before me, men and women writers and orators dedicated to equality and the hopes for America fulfilling its promises, suffered so that I didn’t have to. Never will I know the terror black children once knew as they witnessed their parents brutalized solely because of the color of their skin. I won’t know what it’s like to be refused entrance to a school or a restaurant because the people within think I am less than. Never will I know the fear and misery of my poor mother and father as they were met by groups of angry black men on Memphis sidewalks, ready to do harm because of the color of their skin.
It is a goal of mine to write further about what Dr. King referred to as “nonviolent direct action”, to perhaps take that concept a bit further than blocking traffic and the steps to capitol buildings or voting booths. It is a goal of mine to gather groups of people wearing identical t-shirts (perhaps with bold black lettering such as: YOUR LIFE MATTERS) while delivering Meals on Wheels, while tutoring low-income children after school, while housing the homeless and cleaning up sidewalks in the worst areas of town. Think of it—a protest free of protest. A protest of direct action within communities in need.
This protest would include handing out pamphlets that share Dr. King’s message of brothers and sisters, of faith in the inevitability of human progress as a result of deliberate direct action. Organizing fundraisers in which poets read from Dr. King’s great works, and people are encouraged to share their time and positive attitudes as well as their cash. This protest would be active long past Black History Month, long past churchyards and schools and federal buildings. Each instance of this protest would be an act of creative extremism.