Today I was reading one of the more remarkable documents in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It is notable for its power, its clarity, and the moving images and emotions that it evokes.
It was written in April of 1963. At the time, I was a junior in High School (year 11), and I worked evenings for a newspaper, the Redding Record-Searchlight, that I read avidly. Because of my grandmother, the Captain’s daughter, our family has always been 100% for full, total, and unquestioned racial equality. So I was rooting for the civil rights marchers and wishing I was there.
But today was the first time I ever read Dr. King’s letter. In one part of it, he listed the injustices that led to him breaking the law and ending up in jail. It was such a vivid description of the state of US laws and customs in my own childhood and the pervasive unnoticed racism of the time that I wanted to compare it to the current situation. This is the change that I have lived through in my lifetime. I’ve put Dr. King’s words in quotes, and inset my own, to give his words the prominence they deserve.
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
Due to the efforts of Dr. King, Representative John Lewis, and the collective will of the people of the US, the issue of getting service at any lunch counter anywhere in America is done. Over. Not even a blip on the horizon, unless it is someone losing their mind and suing some poor Christian baker who doesn’t do gay weddings.
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;
While this is one of the most repulsive facts of American history, it is now firmly part of American history. Yes, there will always be individual examples of race hatred on both sides … but that time of widespread lynchings is over forever.
when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;
Mmmm … still a ways to go on this one. We no longer have the kind of organized mob-like police violence with clubs and dogs. And in 2000 when H. Rap Brown of the original Black Panthers was arrested in Georgia after a police shootout in which he killed one deputy sheriff and wounded one deputy sheriff, it was announced by the Atlanta Chief of Police. As someone who was involved in the late 1960’s in the “Movement” as it was called back then, and who was living in the San Francisco Bay Area when the Panthers were originally formed there, I remember laughing when I read about his arrest in the newspaper. Why? Because both deputy sheriffs that he shot were black … and the Atlanta Chief of Police who announced the news was a black woman named Beverly Harvard. I thought, it’s not the same Oakland Police that he fought against back in the day, we’re not in Kansas any more …
Having said that, this is one where there is still “miles to go before we sleep”. We definitely need to improve relations with our police forces, who do a thankless and incredibly necessary job. The recent demonization of the police is quite concerning. We need to be going the other direction.
when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;
This one is difficult. Most barriers to black people making money are down and gone. There are lots of black millionaires, and there are wealthy black leaders in all areas of life. While more subtle racism remains, it is a different and infinitely better world economically for people of all colors.
But on the other hand, the wealth of the median black family, which was never all that great, went steadily down under Obama.
The rules of poverty are simple. If you want to avoid poverty you need to do three simple things:
Finish high school (year 12)
Don’t have kids until you are married.
Find full-time work of any kind.
If you do those three things, you only have a 2% chance of being in poverty. And the requirements are color-blind. White people who break those rules end up in poverty at just the same rate as black people who break those rules.
Now, there still are more overt racists in the US, although the numbers are diminishing, mostly one death at a time.
And even absent that, there is still subtle racism in the US. In many hiring situations, the person making the decision is white. And whatever color you are, if other things are equal you are bound to be somewhat biased towards people who look like you. We’re hardwired that way—to trust those who look like us, starting with the people who look the most like us, our own families, and working outward in decreasing circles of trust from there.
That means if you’re an average black guy, to get hired you’re going to have to be better or faster or slicker than the average white guy … but fortunately, that’s not all that hard. However, sadly the threshold remains higher for people of color. More work to do.
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 eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;
Today every public amusement park and every Funtown in the US is open to people of all colors. That one at least is dead and buried.
when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;
There are two answers to this question. One is that in large measure this refers to institutional racism, which at this point is pretty much history, good riddance.
Next, meanness. Sadly, white people treat white people mean. Black people treat black people mean. Look at murder rates. White people predominantly kill white people. Black people predominantly kill black people. The ugly truth is, people treat people mean, and that part is much harder to solve.
Finally, white racists treat all black people mean because they are black. And black racists treat all white people mean because they are white.
That part we can all condemn and strive to end.
when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;
Thanks in large measure to Dr. King, that is totally a thing of the past.
when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;
History. Done. Over.
when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;
Dr. King might be surprised that the “n-word” cannot now be uttered in any context except, interestingly, by black people. It’s a curious situation where a word was so misused by white people that black people successfully claimed exclusive ownership of the word. Pretty amazing, I can’t think of any other group being able to do that, claim a word as their own.
Regarding his wife and mother never being called “Mrs”, that is a heartbreaking reminder of just how far we’ve come.
when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments;
This is another one where we are better but we have miles to go …
when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
I can only describe that as one of the most moving and heartfelt pieces of writing I can imagine. And I can only toast the amazing achievement of Dr. King and the great American Civil Rights Movement—at last, after 340 years, the waiting was finally over. The days of institutional racism, the days of “separate but equal” that was separate and highly unequal, those days are now dead and buried.
How far have we come? This might best be measured by the one fact that Dr. King couldn’t afford to say a single word about, the “third rail” of the civil rights movement of the time. (A “third rail” is a metaphor taken from electric railways, where the third rail carries thousands of volts and touching it is certain death).
This third rail of the time was the question of interracial marriage. Here’s a fact most folks don’t know. In 1947, the year I was born, interracial marriage was illegal in over 60% of the US states.
Illegal in a large majority of the USA! And now, interracial marriage is legal not only in the US but around the world as far as South Africa, and in many places it is so common as to hardly invite comment.
Now, is racism dead in the US? No way! There will always be hoons, there will always be racists of all colors. There are some white people who believe all kinds of untrue stuff about black people … and some black people who do the same regarding whites.
And unfortunately, in the US there remain a host of small barriers and subtle slights and minor insults that are faced by people of color which are not faced by myself and other white people. Those who don’t face those barriers and slights need to acknowledge them and understand what a lifetime of that can do. The scars caused by ten thousand tiny cuts can be large indeed.
So there is much to work on. But on this MLK Day, we should start by acknowledging just how far we’ve come as a nation toward Dr. King’s dream. We have a ways to go, but thanks to black and white people across the nation, both leaders and citizens alike, we’ve made institutional racism in all of its forms illegal in the US in all parts of our lives from restaurants and parks and water fountains to the Presidency. Doesn’t mean racism is gone … but it is assuredly against the law.
Best to all of my friends of all colors on a day of hope, read Dr. King’s letter, it’s inspiring.