Homage to Dr Martin Luther King Jr.… from one who would have been too timid to march with him

Published 5:21pm Wednesday, January 19, 2011

This coming Monday, Jan. 17, we recognize, for the 24th time as a nation, Dr. King’s birthday. Congress authorized in 1986 that the U.S observe this day as a holiday, “…on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of King’s birthday, January 15.”

For those interested in such trivia only four other individuals have been so honored by the U.S. government: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus and Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ.

It’s discomforting to me to read Dr. King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” It’s an indictment against me personally, as I was back then. He wrote scathingly about people like me. I was one of those rather indifferent by-standers who meant well but always deplored civil strife more than injustice.

This 7,025-word timeless document, which King at first was forced to scribble on scraps of newspaper, was composed as a response to an appeal to Dr. King that eight clergy had just written. The clergymen implored King to forgo his plans for further demonstrations. This was the concluding paragraph of their appeal to cease and desist:

“We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support for these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a case should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principals of law and order and common sense.”

Posterity is fortunate that King penned his now famous response. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

says a great deal about the benevolent but fiercely determined spirit of Dr. King to right the wrongs of social injustice because to do so is one of the strong commands of the Judeo Christian bible.

He wrote that he was repeatedly disappointed by his white clergy brothers, most of who refused to march with him.

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations…. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more important that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

King goes on to insist that he wants negotiations and abhors violence as much as anyone. But what should he do if nobody in the establishment will sit down and negotiate? Should he drop the whole issue?

“Lamentably, it is an historical fact that the privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us , groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

Political power cannot really be bestowed. It must be taken. Sadly, if the “white power structure” King wrote about ever did concede power, they might have been in a position to take it back when the pressure was off. That’s the way of the world. That’s politics. Power must be seized and wrested away otherwise it’s not real power.

King described just laws and unjust laws in his “Letter”:

“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law of God. An unjust law is a code out of harmony with the moral law…. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

Stirring thoughts to be sure. Who cannot but agree? Yet it’s easy to agree with King now from the safe retrospective of a lot of time about an issue that has been long settled. Now let’s transpose those lofty thoughts to issues of the current day. I cannot help but feel that Dr. King might have seen our efforts to seal our southern borders against illegal Mexican immigrations as a law that, “… degrades human personality.”

So, I might find myself once more, were he alive, on the opposite side with Dr. King on a hot issue. Am I being timorous once more in this hypothetical instance? King’s words and thoughts are relevant to this day as I think about this contemporary matter.

The gravamen of his letter is his eloquent but very determined criticism of the white moderates. He was never bitter about his disappointments but was assertive:

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed at the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride for freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ ”

That might well have been me back then that King was writing about. I was just at that time joining the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service. I was soon to find myself posted as vice consul in the U.S. Mission in West Berlin. I was very concerned with the parlous view of the Europeans concerning the civil strife in America. Soon to be ensconced in my prestigious career, safe in my surroundings, a prep school and good New England college education behind me, far from troubled streets, I was the philistine who cared more for order than for justice whom King denounced so ably as “ the Negro’s greatest stumbling block.”

Years went by and yet I recall my approving reactions upon seeing the early fruits of King’s labors. When I returned to the U.S. from Europe after my first tour of duty, long after King had been martyred into an early grave, I noticed something remarkable was rapidly beginning to take place in America that I had not noticed before I left. I took note of young, well-turned-out black couples driving BMWs and enjoying other such accoutrements of newly earned affluence. I saw black managers in corporations. I saw black families taking their rightful places in public restaurants and such places along with the whites.

I said to myself, “This is very cool. What’s all the shouting been about? It’s as it should have been all along.”

But these salubrious social changes that had been taking place were all thanks to Dr. King and no thanks to me, the timorous, upper-middle-class white guy.

So thank God for Dr. King on his birthday. Sure he was politically a pretty far leftie. Sure he had clay feet in his personal life, but King took what was already a good country and almost single-handedly made it a much better country through forcing all of us, by dint of his Christian sense of justice and determination, to live up to the dictates of our own Constitution. By that score he must be a great man indeed. When you have time, read his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” one of the significant documents of American history. Here are some Internet URLs:

http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf

– Submitted by Dixon H. Harris, a new Tryon resident

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