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Martin Luther King

I’m sure that my Gentle Readers all have ways to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, each to his own. I think that it could be a mistake to focus too specifically on the man himself, rather than on the issues he raised, not only the most obvious one of race relations in America, but also poverty, social justice, and of course non-violent direct action in the service of political change. On the other hand, Your Humble Blogger also thinks it would be a mistake to make the man a cipher, standing for his issues but not his work. And, of course, he is one of the greatest writers and speakers in our short history, and deserves credit for that, too.

This morning, I was greatly moved by Morning Edition’s well-edited piece with children reading from “I Have a Dream”. It really was a good way to hear the thing again, and listen to the words rather than the familiar (and majestic) music of Dr. King’s voice. On the other hand, surely our cultural preference for that speech is distracting us from other writings. So this year, Your Humble Blogger will look at the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The King Center has a link to the audio recording as well as a pdf. I should warn Gentle Readers that many of the versions on the web are whittled down, sometimes without saying so, and although the shorter versions are, you know, shorter, they leave out all the things they leave out. For instance, the Teaching American History site leaves out such lines as “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That bit is, you know, important. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

That is one of the great things that Dr. King does, by the way, marry a phrase like inescapable network of mutuality with its formality and its authority to one like a single garment of destiny, figurative and evocative. It’s not that the latter is unsophisticated or dumb, it’s that it draws its authority from a different source. He can do that, speaking from and to a wide range of Americans without the distance of being from somewhere else. I think this introductory part of the letter is the most moving, where he defends he presence in Birmingham by saying “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” Magnificent. And a part of the Dream that we are still waiting for, if not still working for.

After answering the objection that he is an outsider and therefore shouldn’t even be in Birmingham to begin with, he addresses the situation in Birmingham, including himself in its recent history (“We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham) and detailing the just complaints of its African-American residents. He is specific, although not too specific; his argument is clearly generalizable to any city in (at least) the South. He goes from there to a lovely description of non-violent direct action as necessary “to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” He doesn’t describe the process in terms of its results, of what his constituents want to get out of it. Nor does he describe it in terms of justice or injustice, of whether a sit-in or a march is fair or appropriate. It is a physic that he applies to white society; he is bringing its attention to a matter it would prefer not to see, bringing the whole matter to a head so that the white community must make a conscious decision how to proceed. It is the white community that he is trying to raise up, not the black community.

There follows the harrowing and pathetic (in the best sense) description of southern life.

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; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Notice, if you can catch your breath a minute, the mixture again of authorities: ‘smothering in an air-tight cage’ coupled with ‘in the midst of an affluent society’, his authority as a father, as a son and a husband, as a victim and a witness, as a scholar and as a preacher.

I won’t go through the whole thing (but you should Gentle Reader, today, and perhaps again next week), but the bulk of the letter is a defense of what we call civil disobedience, that is, the willingness to break laws, both unjust laws (such as Jim Crow) or just laws applied unjustly (such as parade ordinance laws used to stifle free speech), “openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” He expresses, far better than Gandhi or Thoreau (in YHB’s opinion), the community aspect of civil disobedience, the way in which the lawbreaking brings the lawbreaker into the community, rather than out of it (as with more ordinary lawlessness). “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.”

One of the things to think about, when Martin Luther King day comes around, is the way in which we now understand, culturally, the role of protest and of demonstration, and the way in which the public mind can be concentrated on an issue by heightening its urgency. Of course, some of that has been used cynically, for short-term political ends, but the point is much the same. I don’t think anybody, on either side of any issue, has been able to couch it in anything like the way Dr. King did, has been so inclusive in his rhetorical scope, has combined so much of our rhetorical traditions. I would argue, of course, that inclusiveness of that sort is necessarily on the Left (tho’ the Left is scarcely necessarily inclusive), but that’s neither here nor there. If any Gentle Reader of any political angle wants to move people in the way Dr. King did, I advise first becoming familiar with as many different strands of our conversation as he did, on as many levels, and then work to include them all, drawing from the specific concerns of the moment, from the intellectual ferment, from the religious texts, from the vernacular, from popular song, from our national icons and symbols, from the rhythms of the country and those of the city, and then fashion such a speech as will reach out to everyone of good will, all over the country, and exclude no-one who does not exclude himself. Tie your audience with yourself in a single garment of destiny.

Thank you,

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