Monday, January 18, 2010

Injustice anywhere....

The little girl and the little boy in the adjacent photo are my daughter and my son.

When I was a young girl growing up in the 1960’s, I was very aware of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was on television, on the news, in the papers and magazines of the time, because the late fifties and early sixties marked the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. As a young person, I was astounded by his courage. I tried to imagine what it would be like to stand quietly in the street while men with clubs and vicious dogs were attacking those around me. Fear would overtake me, I knew. I would run away. The type of courage he possessed comes from a place deep, deep down in a man’s soul, a place from which a certain light emanates, and a man knows he has seen enough, heard enough, and he is willing to walk through hell in order to change the status quo.

It was not until I was in college, however, that I began to appreciate the eloquence of Dr. King. Most know him as a powerful orator, and he was, but until one has read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one cannot fully grasp the brilliance of this man as an articulate rhetorician. At my first reading, I was so blown away by his ability with language, I read the letter again from a writer’s point of view. It is one of the most concise yet heartfelt documents I’ve ever read.

I try to re-read King’s letter from time to time, especially around the anniversary of his birthday. Each time, I take away something different. This year, I am particularly struck by his plea to the white clergymen who criticized his arrival as a leader in Birmingham, Alabama. They characterized King as an “outside agitator,” telling the press that they would rather see ‘time and negotiation’ bring forth change instead of Blacks marching in the street as a form of nonviolent protest. In his letter, King lovingly attempts to help them see the life he lives, how difficult it is as a parent “when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’”

If you think that racial discrimination ended with the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, ask my son to tell you some stories. Oh, I can tell you stories, too. But he was the little boy who stood on a neighbor’s front porch and was told he couldn’t play with the little girl inside because of the color of his skin. He was the little boy who was called “nigger” by grown adults.

The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” includes many now famous statements by Dr. King, such as “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But my favorite remark, the one I memorized long ago, the one posted on my classroom wall, is this one:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Full text of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”


  1. Well said, Kay. And for anyone who has not experienced first-hand the sting of racism, they might read, along with Dr. King's work, "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh. She details eloquently the (unearned) privileges that white people take for granted.