As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday approaches, this writer decided to again re-read Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama and spent time in that city's jail. There, he wrote his famous letter.
In that letter, Dr. King did not address unrepentant racists and segregationists. He was not writing to the Alabama Ku Klux Klan or even the White Citizens' Councils (these were the "nice" Southerners — the "button down Klan" — who would have never personally burned a cross or lynched anyone but who fought integration with "economic" weapons). Nor did he address other civil rights activists to his right and left.
Instead, he addressed fellow clergymen, the "nice" white folks, who, while perhaps sympathetic to the cause, cautioned King and others to "go slow." It is probably prudent to go slow in many situations but, do the privileged have a right to tell the oppressed how to best deal with their oppression? Throughout his career, Dr. King was constantly challenging "nice," sympathetic white clergymen to preach racial and social justice from their own pulpits.
This writer likes to think of himself as one of the "nice white folks." But, as a white, male, middle class person, he enjoys a lot of privileges. But, being nice is relative. How many times has he dismissed a racial or sexist joke as "harmless." How many times has he refused to stand up when he saw something unfair? No one is totally innocent except the victims. Hannah Arehnt and other scholars of the Jewish Holocaust write about the role of innocent bystanders and even members of the oppressed group.
Dr. King was not a saint or a god. He was a human being. Yes, he probably had extramarital affairs (tapes of which F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover played for Mrs. King). Nor was he naïve. He was non-violent but he was not passive. He demanded justice; he did not "request" it. He was willing to use all non-violent means to obtain that justice. He planned his tactics carefully and made use of all non-violent tactics including nationwide publicity.
Unfortunately, the history of Dr. King has been greatly revised for public consumption. He was not a "take it" sort of guy and his outspokenness became serious threat to the ingrained "establishment." When he was only talking about integrating buses, he was probably not a threat to the overall American establishment. But, later in his career, he started talking about class distinctions as well as the gap between rich and poor. That has often been risky to do in America.
He also started criticizing the War in Vietnam which did not earn him points with what President Eisenhower publically called "the military-industrial complex." Others did not like his support of organized labor. It was, after all, during his support of a garbage workers' strike in Memphis that he was shot.
He knew he was a target and was putting himself at great risk. But, he was willing to take that risk. He talked about his vulnerability in his "Mountain Top" speech shortly before he was murdered.
Also, with the anniversary of his birth approaching, this writer also re-read (and re-watched) Dr. Kings "I Have a Dream" speech. It is not certain that his dream has been fully realized. Sure, we have civil rights legislation and case law that may have improved some things but do we not have a long way to go? We still judge people not by the content of their character but rather by the color of their skin (as well as their religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, etc).
Racism and other social injustices are still alive and well in America. Will we be "nice" or will we do the right thing?
(Scott Cracraft is a citizen, a taxpayer, a veteran, and a resident of Gilford.)
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