Today is Martin Luther King day in Atlanta, Georgia. It's bitterly cold - the warm weather of the past few days has been replaced by a mercury-dropping arctic blast from the north and west. Many people have today off, and more don't have it as a holiday but will be taking it as one anyway. Speeches will be made, past speeches referenced.
I've been to the museum, seen the house where he was born, witnessed a facsimile of the Birmingham jail in which he was held - the bars through which a guard slipped a newspaper one morning, with the hope that Dr. King would read an editorial therein.
It was a letter, "A Call For Unity": an open letter published by eight white clergymen. The Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Alabama, and his co-ajdutor Bishop, the auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama, the rabbi of Emmanu-El Temple of Brimingham, two Methodist bishops, one of Alabama/West Florida, one from North Alabama - the moderator of the synod of the Presbyterian church of Alabama, and the pastor of the First Baptist Church all signed their names to the document, and put themselves in one stroke of the pen onto the wrong side of history.
It was a guarded call - to obey the courts and law and order. That justice for people of color might eventually come through the courts, but until that happens - the courts are to be obeyed. That they appreciate the local black clergy who are working in the context of local people to discuss the situation and come to some satisfactory conclusions - using proper knowledge and experience of the local situation. But that outside folks have taken to organizing demonstrations and marches in the streets, which, the letter implies, should not be tolerated. That, basically, the good "Negro citizens" of the city should stay home, not listen to outside agitators, and wait for the locals to sort these things out. To wait patiently, naturally, because these things take time. It praised the police department for handling the situation "calmly" - which is horrifying when you think about what kinds of police actions that sentence swept under the rug. The full version is here.
Dr. King repsonded with the letter from Birmingham jail, an important document in civil rights history, and in American history.
But it would have been absolutely disheartening for King, and for others - to read that clergymen were parroting the usual platitudes you tend to see when society gets uncomfortable or inconvenienced by injustice towards some of its people.
In essence, what the letter said was that the status quo wasn't to be challenged. The problem here wasn't really the injustice, but people "agitating" and using methods of protest that are 'uncivil' and 'disruptive'. (We see a chilling echo of this in modern times with the proposal that the "First Amendment" be limited to "free speech zones" well away from the people being demonstrated against.) That the Bible - a work which over and over again speaks of deliverance from bondage - both in this world and the next. A book that commands the Jewish people and its descendents to treat strangers in their midst with charity and not abuse them. A book in which it is unequivocally clear to "love your neighbor" and not oppress him - a work that has the ground-breaking statement that in Christ Jesus there is no Jew or Gentile, no man or woman, no slave or free... gets cited to keep the "status quo" and suggests that people patiently bide their time until such time as those oppressing them decide to change things - that the oppressor should in no way have his or her conscience pricked by the oppression being thrown in their faces. That there be no change or disruption in their lives whatsoever. That must have been devastating.
Because it would have been one thing for random rednecks to scream abuse from the sidelines, or for certain hostile elements such as the Ku Klux Klan posting a rebuttal to civil rights efforts. But for such a wide spectrum of clergymen to commend the police on "keeping order and calm" when that meant slapping around old women, setting dogs on young men and denying prisoners food?
King fired back with the righteous "letter from Birmingham jail" - and set a course for destiny, him and his followers no longer afraid. Something happened after the authorities grabbed a hold of protestors and threw them in jail - every fear they'd realized had come true. They'd been grabbed, bitten by dogs, hit, arrested and thrown into jail. And they found out that they could endure it - they had mugshots, they had records, they'd endured jail - everything the state COULD do to them, it had, and that wasn't enough to stop them. That they had, in the words of Phillippians: "I can do all this through him who gives me strength". It energized them.
But something else happened: as the tide turned, and as King made greater speeches, a further reach. As more and more and more people took to the streets in solidarity. As sadly, when his life was ended in Memphis - he became canonized and championed as a legend - people rallied around King and his dreams came a lot closer to actual reality. Part of that was the clergy having to sit down and seriously re-evaluate their complicity in having supported the society the civil rights movement needed to struggle against.
On Martin Luther King day, we will celebrate the life, the ministry and the life's work of Dr. Martin Luther King, as well we should. Schools and churches and activist groups will mark the day with speeches and presentations, as will hundreds of people in Atlanta and around the country braving the cold to pay tribute to a race well run. But we need to take a few moments afterwards to remember not only the speeches made by Dr. King but also the speeches that led to the necessity of Dr. King taking to the streets. We use some of the same language nowadays with other groups. We tell people not to make trouble, not to agitate. We tell them to wait for court cases, to pay attention to the feelings of other groups and to accept their religious exemptions for whatever prejudices they continue to exhibit.
We haven't 100% realized King's dream. Most certainly we've made strides: great strides. But we cannot say that we're there yet, or that we extend the dreams of Dr. King to everyone. More work needs to be done.
I am aware that it's "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." but in most people's parlance, they never mention the Jr. I am keeping with that nomenclature.