Early morning, April 4,
A shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last! They took your life.
They could not take your pride.
Hard to blame foreign minstrels for getting the timing mixed up. But Martin Luther King Jr. was outside his motel room closer to supper than breakfast when he was shot down. His last words were supposedly to ask his musician friend to play "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" in the meeting later. "Play it real pretty."
It sounds like something that would be MLK's last words. His training was in the church, and he used his training so often that his critics called him De Lawd, as if he'd take that as an insult. Which is why Rev. King was able to answer the dismissive "A Call For Unity" with such rigor a few years before.
Oh, how smart they must have thought themselves, the good members of the clergy in the fine city of Birmingham, Ala., back in '63. After all, who could object to unity? All these outside agitators were just stirring everybody up, so our betters put together a little something of a trap. Why, if we couldn't have unity, if the outsiders didn't want unity, that'd just prove what troublemakers they really were! And so deserve their punishment.
Who could object to a call for unity? Martin Luther King Jr. could--and make his answer one of the finest letters put to paper in the short history of the United States.
"A Call For Unity" is remembered today. But not for anything said in it. "A Call For Unity" is remembered for the response it elicited. From a Birmingham jail.
We can only imagine the reaction from inside the jail on the first reading of the circular. But our outside agitator probably calmed down a bit before picking up his own pen and any paper he could gather in his situation, for he started collegiality enough: "My Dear Fellow Clergymen." Then he admitted his offense: He was, indeed, from Atlanta.
Prophets may not have a choice about where they're put to work. Or, as he explained in the now-famous letter, "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Then he poured it on.
For a real preacher might have to remind certain others about the real world. And why justice can wait no longer:
"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 20 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 6-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 5-year-old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'; when you take a cross-country 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 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."
Any questions or comments, reverend clergymen?
No wonder Martin Luther King's answer is still remembered while the clergymen's appeal to unity--on their terms, of course--has long since been forgotten. Dr. King's letter ceased to be a political document long ago. Like Henry David Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience, it's become literature.
Dr. King's letter from a Birmingham jail will be read long after those writing and reading this editorial are gone. Ideas live--the rest of us are just passing through.
We would imagine that after "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" appeared, like one of the books of the Prophets, those trying to shame the man felt a twinge of shame themselves. At least we hope so. For their sakes. They were clergymen after all. They must have known their correspondent, their brother, was right. But they didn't dare say so out loud.
That's always the way, isn't it? The basest of all things, said William Faulkner, another Southerner, is to be afraid. And what could be a more frightful thing than to have your comfort interrupted? And change forced upon you. Even if it meant a better world.
The Lord had delivered them into his hands! And it is hard to stop a man who is armed with the most formidable instrument of all, the Word.
Martin Luther King went on to climb his mountaintop and declare his truth. Not even his death would still his witness--for His truth goes marching on.
Of all the speeches and sermons he gave over his career, you could make the case that "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was Dr. King's greatest and most enduring contribution. He'd accept the Nobel Peace Prize the next year. (That prize once meant a great deal.)
Why was he so honored? Maybe because he turned the tables on some of us who sorely needed it. Maybe it was because, even though his letter was written, you could hear his words. As we say in the business, the man wrote with a voice. His words had the call-and-response sound of worship.
Folks forget how young MLK was when he was struck down 50 years ago this evening. He was only 39. He could easily be alive today.
We can only guess what he'd say about America and American politics today. He might be amazed. And even more amazed, say, two or four or six years ago.
We celebrate his life every year in January, on his birthday, with other iconic Americans on their birthdays throughout the year. But today many will notice that it's been exactly a half-century since we lost this American voice. When a shot rang out in the Memphis sky.
But we didn't lose his words, nor his vision, nor his call to action. Strangely enough, we all have been granted his wish: to live in the present, in this place, and fight for the right. Like Dr. King, let's seize the moment and make a difference. This time is the only time we've got.
Editorial on 04/04/2018
Print Headline: Half-century later