Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in honor of arguably the most prominent civil rights’ activist in the USA.
If you’re not familiar with his story, he was a pastor in the Ebenezer Baptist Church- from where the current senior pastor, Reverend Raphael Warnock, was recently elected the Democratic Georgian Senator- and later became the head of the civil rights’ movement. He believed in nonviolent direct action, and most people have probably heard his incredibly famous speech, I Have A Dream.
I remember that the first time I heard I Have A Dream, I was around five or six in a majority-white school in the Midwest. To be honest, I don’t completely remember what I felt when I listened to it; I was quite young, after all, and I’m not known for having the best memory. But I do know that year after year when I listened to the speech, it made more and more sense to me. The line about dreaming of a time when black and white children could hold each other’s hands sticks out to me now- it was the line that was played every year without fail.
I’m sure it would have been this year as well, but things are different this year. Our school didn’t play anything for us, and it was up to me to do my own research.
I Have A Dream is a great place to start, and is certainly powerful, but its been sanitized so much to fit white America’s portrayal of MLK Jr. that it doesn’t authentically portray his beliefs.
So today I sat down and read an essay by Dr. King that has been recommended to me countless times– Letter From the Birmingham Jail.
If you want to know why I’ve put it off, I could say that I’ve been waiting for this day to read it, but that would be a lie. It’s actually because I’ve been stuck in my comfort zone- YA fiction- for too long, and I needed a gentle push to get out of it and try nonfiction. That push came from myself, and I’m glad I did it.
My immediate takeaway was about how beautiful the writing was. I’m a lover of words foremost and always a reader at heart, so it makes sense that the elegant language and captivating metaphors would stand out to me. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor who gave sermons regularly, so I wasn’t surprised that the letter would be so eloquent.
However, this post isn’t supposed to be a book review where I analyze the setting and characters and writing style. It’s about the content of the letter and the truths that were stated there in clear terms.
Letter From the Birmingham Jail is one of the only times, if not the only time, that MLK Jr. addressed his haters and opponents, explaining clearly why they were wrong and what perspective he came from. He brings up so many points and refutes so many others yet the essay itself doesn’t seem as long as it is.
One of the main arguments against the Civil Rights’ Movement at the time was that the time wasn’t right to take action. Dr. King writes that someone asked him “why didn’t you give the new administration time to act?” following the Birmingham peaceful protest that happened soon after a new administration in the city was elected.
This line specifically reminds me eerily of our present situation. We’ve recently elected the Biden-Harris administration and they will be taking office in two days.
Yet, there’s no way that it will immediately solve all of our country’s problems. Systemic racism won’t be eradicated just because we have a new administration in office. If that were the case, we should be lightyears ahead of where we are now.
During the election, lots of white moderates said that “now isn’t the time” to push Biden-Harris to embrace more progressive policies. They said to wait for inauguration, and now they say to wait for the first hundred days in office to be over, and for the Trump supporters to be quelled, and for COVID to be over, before demanding that anything gets done.
Dr. King writes in response to the questions about why now, that “the new administration must be prodded about as much as the old one before it acts… I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined nonviolent pressure.”
Direct action is a form of negotiation, he writes. It creates a constructive type of nonviolent tension that is necessary for any form of justice to be taken seriously by the majority.
While I read, I felt like I had the answers to the questions that are constantly being asked about why I believe in direct action.
One of the most touching parts of this letter, to me, wasn’t one of the incredibly profound or intelligent passages, or the parts about the danger about the white moderate (although those ones was truly music to my ears).
Actually, my favorite quote was about something quite ordinary- a six year old girl wanting to go to an amusement park.
“When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky…”
Wow. This quote was devastating to me.
One of the worst parts of segregation is the internalized inferiority that exists in communities of color even now. My family never faced segregation due to moving the USA in the 1990s, but the knowledge that if I existed 70 years ago, or my grandmother traveled to America as a child, we would be treated like filth and second-class citizens hurts. And, speaking of internalized inferiority, what I just mentioned is known as generational trauma, and I can attest to the fact that many people of color live with it.
It’s even more painful to read about all the black children who actually grew up like that- grew up denied the entertainment and fun that was offered to white children, and is now available to all of us.
When I was six, I never had to worry about being denied entry to our local Six Flags (amusement park) because of my skin color. I never had to worry about schools turning me away, or not being allowed to use certain bathrooms because I was brown.
But countless others have had to, and that alone should be enough to shock everyone out of their complacency.
Another reason why this is my favorite quote is because it shows a glimpse into MLK’s personal life. Many of us, myself included, see him as the figurehead to an entire movement and inspiration for us all, almost as a mythical character.
But, as I remember reading in one of his second daughter, Bernice King’s, recent tweets, he was also just a man. A man with a wife and kids, a man who went on vacations to Jamaica wearing funny slippers on his feet and lived in a time of color photos, despite what textbooks might make you think.
He was just a man with a daughter who desperately wanted to go to Funtown.
I mean, Funtown– it’s pretty much the worst name you could give an amusement park, right? Still, it makes sense why young Yolanda wanted to go to Funtown. I’m not six years old, and even I want to go there.
But the stark difference is that I can, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t, and the reason was something completely beyond her control.
That’s what makes this my favorite quote, and perhaps the most profound one as well.
The last note I want to make before I finish this post is of the whitewashing and watering down of MLK’s legacy. As his son, MLK III said in 2018, “We have been programmed as a society to focus on elements of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech because it reduces him to just a dreamer… as opposed to a radical and a revolutionary.“
Martin Luther King Jr. believed in the redistribution of wealth, a living wage and healthcare for all, and he spoke out against militarism and capitalism just as he spoke out against racism. He was known as the most dangerous man in America by the FBI and at the time of his death, 75% of Americans disagreed with his vision for a desegregated world.
Dr. King wasn’t the watered down poster boy calling for complacency to the law and obedience to the police that schools and politicians would like you to believe. He knew the power of nonviolent direct action, he was willing to disobey unjust laws to achieve equal rights, he was a staunch critic of the US government, and he was against economic inequality of all kinds.
I want to leave you all on this powerful message, and urge everyone to read his letter for themselves. Here’s a great tweet that also describes the glaring hypocrisy of many people’s treatment of Dr. King.
This MLK day, I hope you all educate yourself on the horrific injustice and police brutality that still exists today, and honor Dr. King’s legacy by reading his works and supporting a Black Lives Matter organization that’s supporting the community.
Love you all! Remember- radical love is always the right thing to do.