by Hank Boerner
Today we celebrate the birthday of a great American, a man who somewhat reluctantly became a “street warrior” battling for fairness, social justice and equality for the African-American community. And for all Americans, yesterday and today and into our future as a People.
While still a young minister (still in his 30′s), in his early pastoral years The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a fierce advocate for “Negro” rights. As he campaigned, Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama for joining the civil protests underway in the early 1960s.
There in the jail cell, on scraps of paper he hid from his jailers Dr. King answered his critics, including fellow clergy, citing important Biblical precedent, important milestones and events in American history, and the emergence of new nations from former colonies in Africa and Asia. Old colonial empires were shattering.
But in the USA the “southern empire” of the post-Civil War era was mostly still intact; this nation had its own version of the South African system of Apartheid, including structured denial of voting rights for blacks and various Jim Crow practices. One day, he writes in the letter, the south will recognize its real heroes.
Dr. King writes: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Inspiring words!
The young church leader appeals for help in this letter; this document was released and widely read over time. Soon, he would have a much larger stage for his soaring commentary — a few months later on August 28, 1963 he mounted the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and faced perhaps up to a quarter-million people — white, black, brown — and they awaited his words…”I Have A Dream” is still his best-known work.
But when you read this letter from inside a jail cell once again (or for the first time), see if the words don’t ring true for you across a half-century.
Born to a middle-class family, educated at Morehouse College and then in Boston at grad school (Boston University 1953, Ph.D.). Dr. King was not expected to be in the streets heading marches…he was born to lead from the pulpit, and the “higher pulpit” at that…in a big city church, for example, perhaps there in Atlanta where his father served as pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Which he later joined as co-pastor.)
Instead, early in 1963 (only a few years into his ministry) he finds himself sitting in an Alabama jail cell pleading for help, and calm, and social justice. He could not count on the Kennedy Administration for much help at the time – President John Kennedy and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy were then reluctant to anger the long-tenured southern senators and congressmen who ruled Capitol Hill. The Kennedy’s needed their support to win re-election in November 1964. And so we could say that the brothers were then also reluctant warriors to the civil rights struggle emerging in the 1960s.
Shortly after writing his epistle, Dr. King would be out of jail and eulogizing the four little African-American girls killed in a cowardly, racist bomb blast at their church in Birmingham…at least one of them a friend of another little girl, Condoleezza Rice, who rose to be our Secretary of State. (The bombing was on September 15, 1963.)
Dr. King continued to speak out and to be the national voice (and conscience) of civil rights activism, and the leader who could best appeal to the nation’s conscience, north and south, east and west; white and black. He would be awarded the Nobel Prize for his non-violence campaigning in December 1964.
But then, in a short while — in June 1968 – US Senator Robert Kennedy would be announcing the slaying of Dr. King (in Memphis) to a crowd of African-Americans…and a dramatic change would occur in Senator Kennedy’s public attitudes toward civil rights. He would become a man with a mission that clearly included addressing the wrongs of racism.
And not long after that, sad to recall, it would be his brother, Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizing his late brother, Bobby, the presidential candidate (murdered in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968, as he won the California Democratic Party primary). 1968 – that was a terrible year – two leaders slain within months of each other.
But today there is a prayer for all of us as a People in the concluding words from that jail cell letter five decades ago. Dr. King said, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” May that day be!
On this day that celebrates this brave, intelligent civil rights and religious leader, my thoughts go back to 1963 and that cold jail cell in Birmingham and I re-read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968)
I think about his personal and professional struggles when we celebrate his birthday, today, every year. A deserved honor, in my opinion.
He helped move this nation forward in many, many ways, during his very short life on Earth. Imagine if he had lived his biblical four score-plus years! We are in his debt as a nation and People.
Note: This was in part derived from a commentary I authored in December 2007