Letter from Birmingham Jail is a Message for Today

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Every year I re-post, in blog form on But What If I’m Write?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Letter from Birmingham Jail, originally titled, “Why we can’t wait.” Rereading the letter this Sunday morning seems more important to me than ever before. Not only is the language stylistically beautiful, the message is, if possible, more relevant today than it was when Dr. King wrote it, and by that, I don’t mean to disrespect the original intent or the circumstances surrounding it. What I mean is that the vision of the letter has come to embrace all in America who find themselves threatened, bullied, marginalized, and shell-shocked by an uncaring, unyielding, inhumane administration and its adherents who hold offices at every level of national, state, and local government.

Events in my home state of Virginia — the threat of violence at a gun rally slated for tomorrow in our capital, Richmond — have once again (seems like a daily thing, this “once again”) focused Virginians and, I hope, all rational Americans, on the degree of social and political disruption purposefully caused by the current White House and its nation-wide proxies.

In response to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s emergency decree that guns will be banned from the capital in the lead-up to the rally, President Trump tweeted, “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!”

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My concern is not founded on a gun-rights/2nd Amendment trope, but rather on the broader, more insidious spread of fear-for-hire that has become the go-to modus operandi of Trumpian operatives across the political spectrum. Those of us who hold fast to Constitutional principles and the rule of law defined in that founding document, are receiving a gasoline-soaked message, often delivered in a sneering, crude, and unapologetically brutish tone. The smoldering rag-in-a-bottle message tossed through our windows is, “Nice house ya got here. Too bad it’s gonna be demo’d.” That is how this administration works — rough, dirty, uncaring, and, worst of all, blatant.

The lessons of history are usually lost on those who have lived comfortably — or at least unharmed — on the periphery of transitional moments of national strife. I know from my own relatively privileged experiences as a white middle class boy coming of age in Europe, the Midwest, and the East in the 1950s, that what was happening in Birmingham and throughout the South was more of a youthful curiosity than a face-to-face existential experience. It wasn’t until my father was stationed in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1963 that the impact of Jim Crow and unbridled racial hatred in the form of lynchings taking place barely one-hundred miles from my home woke me up.

Those images and attitudes informed my ultimate choice as a journalist to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable whether with my cameras or my words. I think I speak for many of my like-purposed colleagues when I say the work is often tantamount to cleaning the Augean Stables by hand, one pile after another.

Through the searing heat of racial violence, quenched with the cooling calls of conscience of men like Dr. King, and the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act, America of the 1960s had a golden opportunity to melt down the swords of hatred and forge the old metal into new, freshly annealed plowshares of peaceful community. Viewed sixty years later, it is clear we failed to save ourselves and our country. What is even worse, not only did we not fundamentally improve the lives of Black Americans, we failed to address in a meaningful, long-term way, the social, educational, economic, security, and aspirational needs of tens of millions of Americans of all ages, colors, and origins.

The rise of hard left and hard right news media, bifurcated social media, predatory businesses, and wealthy, opportunistic contenders for high office has upset our center of gravity, shifted our expectations, and reordered our priorities against our once-better judgements. We are no longer shocked by lies; we have developed an unhealthy appetite for entertainment programming that rewards deception and penalizes fair play; we will stand for things that are patently vile and not raise a finger of objection; moral turpitude — evidenced by the caging of innocent children, the redirection of national security funds to build a wall, and the dismantling of vital environmental laws — is not moving any needles of outrage.

We nod dumbly at the administration’s overt pandering to dictators; we countenance the gutting of a treasured American hero at the hands not only of a foul-mouthed president, but with willing assent of that man’s former best friend. We seem willing to accept “an almost certain” outcome of an impeachment trial that by any rational standard would never result in an acquittal. And all the while, the rights and needs of Americans of color, Americans of the “wrong” ethnicity or sexual preference or religion or origin, Americans straddled with debt, Americans unconnected to health care, are being shoved aside to make way for big money, the “right” thinkers, and the most vocal acolytes of an unscrupulous regime.

This is not the America Dr. King envisioned in his “I have a dream” speech, or in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. This is not the America I hoped for 50,40,30 years ago. This is not the America my wife and I saw ahead us when our three children were born.

I am not without hope, though. I know too many people who are good and just and clear-headed about what needs to be done, and who work hard every day, in ways big and small, to right our ship. So many of my friends and colleagues who represent news organizations, centers of faith, non-profit organizations, schools, hospitals, the military, and, yes, even government, embrace Dr. King’s unquenchable thirst for justice. And all of us know none of us could express that thirst more eloquently than Dr. King did in his letter.

“Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”

“I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our foreparents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation — and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.”

I pray Dr.King’s words still hold, and that the inexpressible cruelties of this current administration, levied against so many of our fellow citizens, will crack and crumble and be swept away by the inexhaustible winds of justice.

Written by

Journalist, former Capitol Hill staff (House and Senate), former Cabinet speechwriter, editor, photojournalist and bird photographer. Top Writer Quora 2016–2017

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