When I was in graduate school, my office mate, a young man from Yemen, often played tapes of speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. I had heard of him, and vaguely approved of him, in college days of civil rights activism. But the power of the man's words surprised me. I could not do anything else when these speeches were rolling through the air.
Later, as a young professor at Occidental College, I taught in a class called "Collegium," the entire curriculum of these students for their first year of college. My colleague, Axel Steuer, had the students read Letter from the Birmingham Jail. If you haven't read it, you can find it here (click on link).
I'm going to quote a couple of passages from that letter here.
"In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." " ...
"I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
Two or three years ago, I took a detour when driving between the Atlanta airport and my mother and sister's homes in Chattanooga, TN, and visited the Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, AL. I stood a long time at the Maya Lin-designed fountain-table inscribed with the names of those who died in the Civil Rights struggle in the US. I read and reread the inscription from Amos, quoted above, which is inscribed on a black granite wall with water coursing over it. I was glad for the gains in Civil Rights, glad for this organization that says we must not forget who paid the price. Let us celebrate MLK's birthday by reconnecting with what he most cared about and stood for:
cheers, Laura"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."