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Lions Roar : January 2005
Sitting on a bench in a narrow jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., composed a letter to eight fellow clergymen. They had criticized him for organizing nonviolent protests in Birmingham, calling them “unwise and untimely.” The letter ran to more than 8,000 words and included references to Socrates, Jesus, T.S. Eliot, the apostle Paul, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther and Abraham Lincoln. Today it is one of King’s most famous works: Letter from Birmingham Jail. WE KNOW THROUGH PAINFUL EXPERIENCE thatfreedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distin- guished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitu- tional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political indepen- dence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gain- ing a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. 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; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smother- ing in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent 44 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 In other words, these two iconic and long-dead Americans suffer from the curse of canonization, which progres- sively over four decades has airbrushed away the sweat and scars, the pores and imperfections, and the polyvalence both men exhibited during their highly influ- ential journeys among us. This is tragic, for it is in such personal minutiae that we find the very foundations from which a memorable public life arises. Moreover, this forgetfulness is a tragedy for all of us as Americans, because not only questions about race relations are at stake in the Martin Luther King, Jr., story but also deeper issues, older conundrums, about what it means to be civilized in the polit- ical and social world, about how one confronts social evil without creating further evil, division and enmity, even questions about what Buddhists call pratityasamutpada (dependent origina- tion) that resonate beneath the surface of King’s remarkable and too brief thirty- nine years of life. Clearly, these are matters of urgency— especially the demand for civility—when in our spiritually bankrupt world awash in pop culture vulgarity and terrorist acts (consider the Russian children of Middle School 1 killed by Chechen rebels and radical Muslim beheadings of noncom- batants like Egyptian Mohammed Abdel Aal in 2004), our leaders during the last presidential campaign, on both the left and the right, shamelessly employed such dirty tactics as mud-slinging and charac- ter assassination in their desire to “win.” (Prescient, King once stated: “We shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect,” and also counseled, “We must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle.”) Would that today’s arro- gant, Thersitical, ankle-biting and so often short-sighted politicians, with their red- meat rhetoric, might remember what King told the Freedom Riders in 1960: “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” Sadly, today few if any of King’s admir- ers can list all his campaigns through the South and North, each a drama in itself. (Most only recall Montgomery, Birming- ham and Selma, but what about the bat- tles for equality and justice he led in Albany, Chicago and St. Augustine, Florida?) Nor can they sketch the complex yet ethically coherent philosophy—part social gospel, part Personalism (the belief that God is infinite and personal), and part Gandhian satyagraha—that led him triumphantly from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and produced that breathtaking fusion of scholarship and idealism known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL the great political documents in American history, which King composed in a dark- ened cell without a single note or textbook to refer to, writing first on the margins of a newspaper, then on toilet paper, and finally on a legal pad from his lawyers. Fewer still know anything about the role religion played in his family’s lineage (his father, Daddy King, was a prominent Atlanta minister and activist, of course, but his grandfather Adam Daniel Williams was known to preach at the “funerals of snakes, cats, dogs, horses or anything that moved”); or his childhood and parents (“It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friend- ly,” King wrote in 1950, “mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environ- mental circumstances”); or his education that culminated in a Ph.D. from Boston University when he was twenty-five (he began his freshman year at Morehouse College when he was fifteen years old and was a disciplined, star student at Crozer Theological Seminary); or his personal regimens, eccentricities, spiritual goals or even the name of his favorite sermon— the one he believed captured the essence of his message—among all the speeches he gave during his 14-year public min- istry. It was not, as so many believe, the impromptu speech King delivered on August 28, 1963, during the March on ©ESTATEOFJAMESKARALIS