“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Our annual remembrance of civil rights on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated almost by rote now, in ways big and small. There are corporate events where soul food makes a once-annual appearance, community events long on entertainment and short on reflection.
I find it more compelling to observe this national holiday the day before, in the intimacy of a small group that coalesces at sunrise almost by word on mouth at the Minneapolis park named after King. While crows heckle from nearby oaks, a circle of some 15 souls reads King’s masterpiece person by person.
No, not that masterpiece. His best-known speech, enunciating King’s dream for America and widely considered a rhetorical masterpiece, came at the 1963 March on Washington. That was a soaring oration delivered for a public occasion and has echoed through the decades.
This masterpiece is the quieter but no less intense letter that King composed four months earlier after he and other clergy were arrested on a Good Friday. They had marched in defiance of a judicial injunction against demonstrations to further their nonviolent campaign against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us.”
This letter was begun on the margins of newspapers, the only paper King initially had in jail, and later continued on legal pads his attorneys were permitted to leave with him. Given his location, it is known as King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
He addressed this missive to eight white local clergy who had been critical of King for employing marches and sit-ins to confront injustice. King’s letter is a point-by-point rebuttal to their call for gradualism. Although they were his immediate audience, ultimately the letter was intended for a larger one. It served as a closely reasoned argument for the necessity of the civil rights movement in that time and that place.
“Freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
It addresses why local civil rights leaders invited King as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Birmingham, the timing of the marches, their purpose as a tool of nonviolent direct action and his disappointment in white moderates.
But the crux of the letter articulates the moral case for the cause. King’s incarceration allowed him time to reflect deeply and marshal arguments that drew on German philosopher-theologians Tillich and Buber, on Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, on ancient Jewish refuseniks Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. He weaves a deep and sweeping brief for action that transcends his particular place and time by defining why immoral laws need be challenged.
“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. … An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.”
Ultimately, it is this clarion trumpet for morality that I find so compelling, coupled with the fellowship of the readers.
Some of those attending are members of Judson Baptist Church, whose minister G. Travis Norwell originated the reading. Those attending range from grade-schoolers in snow pants to grandparents in mufflers. A curious fact has been that almost all participants are white, at a park that also serves plenty of black and brown residents.
Perhaps it was the competition. There were at least three other King-related events that weekend within about a mile of the park. Perhaps it was the almost word-of-mouth publicity. Perhaps it was the early hour and the reliably cold January weather. But I found it notable that attendance wasn’t greater at a site where there’s an active group dedicated to preserving the park as a shrine to King.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
It was also notable the next day to hear a public radio announcer remark that this year King would have turned 88. That assumes that King still would be alive, absent his assassination at age 39. The life expectancy for black men born at the same time as King was a mere 48.5 years.
Perhaps King would have beaten those odds. He was born into a family of relative privilege and maintained a middle-class life. Perhaps that would have shielded him from heart disease, which takes more than a year off black male life expectancy compared to whites males, or cancer, which shaves black lives by almost the same margin.
Instead he fell to homicide, another health scourge among black males. According to similar federal statistics, homicide takes almost a year off their life expectancy compared to their white counterparts.
“One day the South will recognize its real heroes.”
As the reading proceeded, the rising sun peeked through openings in the park’s iconic “Freedom Form II” sculpture. It flooded the circle of readers and the world encircling them with the promise of another day, a day in which to atone for an ugly past and to resolve for a more equitable future. You may join them next Jan. 14.