MLK Day – Letter From Birmingham Jail

Commemorating Martin Luther King day, a Facebook friend of mine posted a link to Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

I first read this in an anthology while I was probably a freshman in high school. I was a young white guy growing up Louisville Kentucky. It must have been 1975 or 1976. This meant two things: (1) I was pretty much oblivious to my possession of what is known widely today as privilege, and (2) I found myself swept up in Louisville’s first year of court-mandated busing. The last bit resulted in me being yanked from my essentially all-white middle school and made part of the distinctly integrated, inner-city environment of Manual High School.

It was in one of those school rooms where I first read Dr. King’s letter. I remember being quite disturbed by it.

I had other things to worry about back then, though. I was somewhat gregarious, and reasonably bright–bright enough anyway–but I was small and inexperienced and way, way out of my league in a 2500+ student inner-city school. Mere survival felt like a major challenge at times. So I absorbed Dr. King’s letter and I felt its importance, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand it beyond that importance.

I read it again sometime after graduating from the University of Louisville, which is a school on an urban campus, and which is tangled up in what can be pretty bitter local politics with its rival the University of Kentucky, a good deal of which is fueled by a fractured history of racial tension across the state. Louisville is considered “the city.” Everywhere else in Kentucky isn’t.

On this second reading, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” made more sense to me. It is a remarkably simple framing of the interactions between a collection of frighteningly complex issues, and I think it helped me understand that there truly was (and still is) so much of the world that lies outside of my inherent understanding. It helped me see that I needed to be careful where I put the weight of my opinion. It fed into my earliest views of things like leadership, and organization, and social constructs. The letter is, of course, written to Christian leaders, and being a church leader himself Dr. King relies heavily on biblical references. I am often made uncomfortable by such reliance. I consider myself spiritual, but can get edgy at the idea of these human constructs known as religions (as well as most other organizational constructs for that matter, most of which I figure are generally needed but mostly untrustworthy due to the all-too-human need for self-preservation and tribalism that infects their leaders and members). But in “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King, however, brings these stories to bear in ways that serve the spirit rather than attempt conversion, and he uses them to admonish and expose the failing human beings behind the church’s curtain of the day.

I don’t remember exactly when this second reading occurred. I was probably 25 or 30 years old. As I recall, though, I believe I saw it as a historical document. I had, at that time, this view that since the legal structure had “fully changed” in the United States, that it was now just a matter of time before the concept of a truly integrated world was at hand. In other words, I was oblivious. One of the most important messages embedded in Dr. King’s text flew right over my head. Since I had not actively thought things through, I assumed that if everyone just waited for enough time to pass, that things would stabilze. In other words, I still didn’t really get it.

So, with that said, thanks to my Facebook Friend, we run time up another two decades to the point of this morning when I read it again.

I suggest you read it too. If it’s new to you, I bet you’ll learn something important. If you’ve read it before perhaps you’ll remember something you forgot.

Or, maybe, if you’re like me (a white guy who’s lived a seriously charmed life of 50+ years), as you read along you’ll begin to see it as a scorecard that Dr. King projected into the future–maybe you’ll have moments where you think “well, at least we’re passed that,” and other moments where you cringe with the realization that 50 years later the human beings who live in and execute our system are still struggling to live up to the beauty of the idea that all people are created equal. Maybe it will rock your world, as it did mine this morning, to realize that you were not quite two years old when this document was written, and so it represents a true yardstick for the time period that you have lived. And in those moments when you cringe perhaps you’ll be struck with the idea–bolstered by historical data and recent headlines–that perhaps we’re not even really “passed” the parts you think we’re passed. That is, I suppose, how oblivion works, after all. We don’t see a problem or feel the ramifications of a problem, hence it does not exist.

And perhaps you’ll then think that maybe there is no being “passed” this kind of issue. Perhaps you’ll think that even if some uncertain optimum was achieved, that even then the work is not done. Entropy, as I learned in engineering school, is always increasing. Houses built require future diligence. Perhaps there is no being “passed” things when it comes to social groups. Perhaps there is no “finished.”

So, then, if there is no “finished,” no “passed,” no “through with,” does that mean there is only “now?”

Would that make a difference in how you thought or how you saw the world today?

So, yes, I suggest you read “Letter From Birmingham Jail” again. Or for the first time.


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