By Curtis Lawrence | January 15th, 2008
On Martin Luther King’s birthday, I assign myself to read one of his speeches or letters. I got the idea from friends at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Minority Caucus, who would commemorate the day by sending around King quotes and thoughts about him on the interoffice computer system.
I have continued this tradition for myself, years after leaving the paper, because I wanted to make sure to keep and expand on my own accurate intellectual memory of King. I was half way to 10 when he was killed. My memories of him include standing with my family as King spoke in a baking hot park on the South Side of Chicago. Dr. Strickland, who lived down the street, had a big black umbrella, which I found fascinating. I remember my mother, stunned and still in front of our little black and white TV when the news of King’s assassination was announced. I remember my sister staying at home for days because of riots throughout the city and because of the unrest at her predominantly white North Side high school.
These little freeze frame memories are precious to me, but I know that I have to build on my memory of King, to illuminate it with King’s own words and as much reliable information as possible. I’ve made a promise to myself not to let anyone else – not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama – define King for me. This is especially important today and it’s especially important for those of us who call ourselves journalists or truth tellers.
Last year in this space, I wrote my thoughts about King’s speech from New York’s Riverside Church, where he shaped and molded his anti-Vietnam stance before an overflowing crowd of more than 3,000 people. That speech was given exactly one year before King was assassinated in Memphis. Reviewing the speech was especially timely last year because of the debate over the Iraq war. King’s comments seemed prescient even from the grave, but yet we still are there in that war. Some politicians are now debating on how best to slowly tiptoe out backwards; others want to stay.
Last night, I read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He started the letter in the margins of newspaper and on scraps of paper from a black trusty when he was jailed for integrating lunch counters and non-violently protesting Jim Crow conditions in Birmingham. King and Ralph Abernathy were arrested on Good Friday, 1963, and were held for eight days. Hundreds of others also had been arrested during the campaign. In “Why We Can’t Wait,” King talks about the days leading up to his arrest. He worries about how funds for producing bond were dwindling and about the wavering morale among his comrades. King also had come under attack from local clergy, which led him to write his letter from the Birmingham jail.
King wrote the Birmingham Jail letter in response to eight clergymen who, in a published letter, had urged him to butt out of the city’s business. I first remember being introduced to King’s Birmingham letter in college by an English teacher who extolled the letter for its organization, narrative and phrasing. I remember it for its lasting phrases.
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned
about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere
is a threat to justice everywhere.”
He talked about waiting and what that meant to black people.
“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.”
And he talked about the pain of telling his children about the realities of his country in the 1960s – of not being able to tell his six-year-old daughter that she couldn’t go to the amusement park she saw advertised on TV. He talked about watching his Negro brothers “smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society,” a haunting image that still hasn’t been erased from our view today.
It still amazing to me how eloquent and powerful King is in his writing, like an orchestra. My fear though is that people will take lines from his music without listening to his whole song, either because they don’t have the time or because it’s not convenient for their cause. That’s why I cringe when I hear most politicians use his words. After reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” or the entire “Why We Can’t Wait,” the politician’s goal of getting elected to higher office comes off flat.
So, if you haven’t already done so, spend some time with King today. Learn the history yourself and pass it on to someone else.