On April 12, 1963, a letter from 8 white Alabama clergymen was published in a local paper condemning the actions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers and praising the local constabulary for their excellent adjudication of the situation that resulted in the jailing of Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. Four days later, Dr. King replied, via the same newspaper, in what is thought to be one of the most significant documents of our time: “Why We Can’t Wait.” Most people know it as King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
This letter has been much in the news over the past few days as the 50th anniversary of its penning approached. Also in the news has been a response to his letter, authored by the (white) clergy of Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. Unabashedly admitting my woeful lack of education in things African American, I had never read this letter. So, at the tender age of 51, I decided it was time. And, in the spirit of fairness, I decided to read CCT’s response, too.
Dr. King’s letter stirred something in me that I still struggle to fully express. At first there is anger; anger at the injustice my ancestors and I (I was raised in the South of the the 1960s) suffered, and at the inequities that my children and I continue to face in the 21st century. Then there is sadness. Sadness that racism is a cancer so deeply embedded in our culture that we seem unwilling – or unable – to excise it for fear that it will rend this country’s “single garment of destiny.” Finally, there is weariness. Weary that, though I can now use a public restroom, my labor is only viewed as only 70% as valuable as that of my white male counterpart . Weary that – even today – the rumors of inferiority described by Jeff Howard and Jay Hammond in their 1985 essay are alive and well weighing down the spirits of our youth to this very day. In the 1967 movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Sidney Portier’s character (Dr. John Prentice) says to his father, played by Roy Glenn, Sr.: “You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight be off our backs!” Indeed. We should be so lucky.
Dr. King, despite his less-than-optimal situation, provided an eloquent and timely response to the clergymen’s letter. A mere 50 years later, CCT attempts to respond: too little, too late.
Their response is – at best – disappointing. The best parts of this exercise in literary triteness are the quotations from Dr. King’s letter, and only resurrects the idea that we should “wait until a ‘more convenient season'” for that which is our God-given right and only serves to bolster Dr. King’s assertion that “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” These individuals, who preside over what Dr. King described as “the most segregated hour in Christian America” exhibit no true conviction to change the status quo.
“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Yes, CCT provides us with 20 pages of flowery language, matching almost word-for-word Dr. King’s pivotal work, launching it to new heights of credibility and relevancy.
As I write this, my heart hurts. Not because I am one of the millions of people of color who remain oppressed by poverty and a lack of education and opportunity, but because I am among those “Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security…have unconsiously become insensitive to the problems of the masses.” I’ve told myself that it’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I’m so busy trying to keep my life in the road that I am rarely able to reach beyond myself. But I see now that this has only been an excuse, and a shameful one. There will never be a more convenient season than the one we create. Dr. King asserted that “time is neutral.” I disagree. Time is a thief. A sneak thief. It lures us into selfishness with its pretense of scarcity as it lulls us into complacency with its promise of endlessness. Equality, justice, and freedom are not buses that will eventually arrive if we sit patiently and wait. We must actively pursue them, and actively stave off their enemies wherever they are found.
From this day forward, John Bradford’s famous quote “There, but for the grace of God, go I” is no longer a viable substitute for meaning advocacy and action.
And so, my response to Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is simply “Thank you.”
*Quotations in this blog were taken directly from Dr. King’s text unless otherwise attributed.