Of course the classy, enlightened thing to do on Martin Luther King Jr. Day every January remains to brighten the cold and often gray mornings by posting quotes, images and videos about having dreams, taking the first steps, and valuing love over hate. We pontificate on justice and look toward the one day when the dream he had becomes a reality, and we feel a little less xenophobic and a little more pious about ourselves.
And then we go to work, or take a day off by relaxing. And that day is often filled with complicit participation in the systems that oppress others and therefore ourselves. We participate in the dreams of power and anxiety and scarcity and fear and clamoring for the top. We participate in tempered and reasoned arguments why Yes, of course these are important issues, but this is the wrong way to go about it. We join in faceless, human-interaction-less debates about getting back to some unreal era when things were better or moving toward some unwon future when the best of humanity is realized.
But on this Monday, every year, we read a letter from a Birmingham prison, a letter in response to 8 clergy’s written request to MLK to calm down and play by the known rules, and we celebrate. We imagine ourselves in the cell with King, supporting his words and thinking his thoughts. After several years of scribbling An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere on pieces of paper and taping them to mirrors and computer monitors, I wondered what the letter written TO a Birmingham prison actually said, and if I might actually, ashamedly find myself supporting their words and thinking their thoughts.
For the causes and the groups of people in the margins those causes are iconic of, we owe our own futures as well as the legacy of King the task of identifying with how much we still speak with the words of these clergy in all their good intentions, whether we want to or not, because in all our tweets and posts about freedom and justice and oppression, we are terrified that if we don’t support the status quo we might end up on the bottom, being treated and imprisoned the way we have been treating and imprisoning others.
April 12, 1963
We clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “an Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.
Since that time there has been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.
However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experiences of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.
We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.
We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause 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 principles of law and order and common sense.
C.C.J. CARPENTER, D.D., LL.D., Bishop of Alabama
JOSEPH A. DURICK, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham
Rabbi MILTON L. GRAFMAN, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama
Bishop PAUL HARDIN, Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church
Bishop NOLAN B. HARMON, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church
GEORGE M. MURRAY, D.D., LL.D., Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
EDWARD V. RAMAGE, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States
And THEN, the letter from that prison:
Pine Tree Dr.