Dr. King and his Letter


Consider these statements:

“An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.”

“However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens directed and led in part by outsiders.”

“And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.”

“We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled.”

“When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

These five statements could be written in response to events in Sacramento, Charlottesville, Baton Rouge, or several other cities or towns of our country. They could be appeals for local control by the citizens who know the areas best, thus who know and understand the real issues, unlike outsiders. And, they all ask indirectly or directly for a peaceful resolution to the problem. However, they all mask the seeping sore of racism bt subtle language.

As a teacher of literature, one of the most successful essays that I taught was Dr. King, Jr’s. Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The high school students always enjoyed reading and discussing Dr. King’s essay for several factors, but mostly for its elegant rebuttal to the forces he wrote against. Lively discussions in class often led to the study of other black writers, contemporary and historical, with contrasting views concerning race in America. As a teacher, I especially enjoyed the essay because it offered so many “teaching moments” about the use of language, self-respect, manners, non-violence, and race. However, something always seemed to be missing, and after several years of teaching Letter, one of my sons told me what that was.

Most letters are a response to another letter or document. Dr. King’s Letter is, I found out from my son, an answer to a “Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen” published on April 12, 1963 in a local Birmingham newspaper. Four days later Dr. King wrote his famous letter explaining why he and the country could no longer wait for the end of segregation. Following my “discovery” of the Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen, the classes centered around Letter became even better than before. Now I saw that my students had some perspective in which to place Letter; it was not now a document in a vacuum. Students now had their chance to write a response to the Public Statement before reading Dr. Kings. That homework assignment was only one offered by the scope of Letter.

As we write about and discuss the fifty years passed since Dr. King’s killing, like that of young Travon Martin more recently, more books, panels, television specials, and such are offered to us. But, as well meaning as these are, are they the salve to cure the sore of racism in America? The Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen can be found on-line, and I recommend it as a historically document of importance just as is Letter. Then, after you read it, write your letter of response to the leaders of today (not 1963) who ask  for “local control”; the mongers of extremism; the deniers of basic liberties; the policemen who shoot too often at black; the powerful who deny to the disenfranchised; and the religious leaders of all faiths who, along with their congregations,  remain silent.

Racially we are different that when Dr. King was killed. The church I attend has black members. The neighborhood I grew up in has residents who are black and Latino. We are different, yes. But are we better?

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