I’ve never really studied African-American history. The civil rights movement was merely a few chapters of history I had to learn for a test. You see, it didn’t apply to me. I grew up a white girl of adequate privilege in Plano, Texas. My parents taught me to respect everyone regardless of race, religion, gender, what have you. Especially adults – I had to respect adults. But now that I’m nearing forty – I’m starting to wonder if all adults are worthy of respect… not based on gender, race or what have you… but on their ability to show respect for those exact things. Thanks for this, Trump.
I saw a quote and posted it to Instagram that said “The answer to whether we’d have marched in THE Civil Rights era is whether we are marching in THIS civil rights era.” I posted it because I liked it and feel quite happy with my decision to march next weekend in Austin for Women’s Rights. After some introspection, I realized that I am walking with friends, in a safe place where it is doubtful my march will incite violence. So, it begged the question, would I have risked what others before me have risked?
I decided to read Martin Luther King’s “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” for insight and mostly hopeful for inspiration. It doesn’t hurt that today is the remembrance of his birth.
Here is what happened when I read this incredible letter.
First, I realized that it is quite long – 6 pages single paced and typed. I can only imagine the handwritten version.
Second, I wished I had an ounce of the eloquence of word that King did.
Then it opened my eyes to a struggle I thought I knew about but more importantly to a struggle I thought was singular to African-American civil rights.
I learned that every word he wrote still applies today and in some cases, applies even to this white girl from Plano.
He says “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea”
Boom. I watch the news of Syria and Aleppo from afar with pity in my heart and never once did I think I needed to do anything about it or that it was a threat to my own freedom. I hear of violence towards protesters and think – can’t everyone just get along without realizing that those protesting are taking action I’m too scared to take.
He further explains the basic steps to a nonviolent campaign. One of those steps is self-purification – asking and demanding things of yourself in order to participate.
Can I take blows without returning them?
Can I allow someone to spit on me without reacting?
Can I bear what people will call me without returning the name calling?
I have never once in my life had to ask those questions of myself. I’m not sure I’d like the answers if I did.
As we enter a new phase of our government leadership that I don’t agree with, many have said to me to “accept it, stop complaining and just wish for the best.” Dr. King just told me the opposite and I tend to agree with him. He says:
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
I will admit that I never thought of protests or dissension in such a way. I just thought of it as the freedom of people to say whatever they want. But it is so much more than that… isn’t it? Its intent is to make us, our leaders and people of privilege super uncomfortable… so uncomfortable that we will finally acknowledge an issue and do anything to make the discomfort go away. I will use my voice differently now. I hope.
However, the part of the letter that spoke the strongest to me wasn’t until page three. He spoke about me. I mean, not me personally, but who I am. The white moderate. The person who says “give it time, it will work itself out” or the person who says “but it’s the law, I must abide by it.” The person who changes the channel when the news stories are too uncomfortable or argumentative or the PEOTUS is shown. The one who avoids the discomfort of change at all costs. It took me a minute to realize that is who I am- the white moderate. Worse, the white moderate woman. The one who says:
“Eventually pay will equalize”
“So, we didn’t get a woman in the White House this time, I’m sure we will in my lifetime.”
“I can’t imagine that they would ever overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s my body and they are all men.”
“I live a nice life, I shouldn’t complain about the rights I don’t have.”
“Just keep quiet. That’s easier than calling him out for the mansplaining.”
“Gay rights are only for gays to worry about – my gay friends are just fine.”
“I can’t imagine people really take him seriously, we’ll just run the clock out on this one.”
King called the white moderate “the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom.” He conveyed the idea that they are worse than a Klansman. Because we prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace.” He described it as saying “I agree with the goals you seek but I can’t agree with taking direct action.”
It is me sitting in my living room saying “Yay Women’s Rights” and then switching the channel to Criminal Minds without doing a damn thing myself. One of the more powerful things I read was his statement that “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Preach on, Dr. King, Preach on.
He continues to talk about the churches role in nonviolent direct action, and I won’t get into that here as I promised not to make this blog too strong a platform about faith. But let me say this, he gets it right and his biblical and historical comparisons made me feel that I take both my faith and my freedom for granted.
I am more surprised than anything by the parallels to today. His letter is just as relevant now as in 1963. I find that heartbreaking and thought we had come much farther as a people than we have. But mostly, when I read this letter, I never ever dreamed that Dr. King would speak to me.
I encourage you to read this letter yourself, you can find it here.