Every year on Martin Luther King Day I try to read some original text related to civil rights. Last year I read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the first time and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read and it feels just as relevant today as it certainly was in 1963. Upon re-reading the letter yesterday I found myself wondering why I don’t read it once a month instead of once a year. Please take some time today to read it for yourself.
It’s a brilliant work of persuasive writing, but more importantly it’s a powerful exposition of the truth. His example of civility in discourse in the face of bitter opposition and disheartening ambivalence is remarkable. I love this passage:
I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. There will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. There will be the old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” There will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
May we all learn the lessons Dr. King was trying to teach. Here’s to a better year.
Also, read Paul Pierce’s timely post about Haiti, guns, freedom, and responsibility.