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Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day

This month we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the anniversary of the great Civil Rights leader’s birth. As holidays go, this isn’t one that gets a lot of attention in many quarters. After all, it lacks the pageantry of Independence Day, or the time-honored traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Despite this, there is something very special about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. For one thing, it’s one of only two federal holidays centered around a single individual, the other being Columbus Day. (Technically, Presidents Day is to honor George Washington’s birthday, but in recent times it has expanded to become a celebration of all presidents.)

More importantly, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a chance to commemorate the life and work of one of the most influential, eloquent, and courageous leaders of all time.

When most people think of King, their thoughts usually turn first to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But a few months before his speech, King penned an equally brilliant message to a far smaller audience, under far more difficult conditions. I’m referring, of course, to his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Let’s go back in time to April 1963. John F. Kennedy was president, Lawrence of Arabia was the most popular film, and the Beatles had just released their first album. Meanwhile, King was in Birmingham, where racial tension and strife was high.

Earlier that year, Alabama’s newly elected governor had declared “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” To this, King responded with the Birmingham Campaign, which consisted of marches, sit-ins, and boycotts, all in accordance with his philosophy of nonviolence. But on April 10, a local judge decided to ban all parades, demonstrations, and boycotts of any sort. King disobeyed, and was arrested two days later.

While sitting in his cramped cell, King managed to read a smuggled copy of a local newspaper. Inside he found a statement labeled A Call for Unity, written by several white clergymen. While expressing sympathy for the Civil Rights cause, the article criticized King’s methods, suggesting activists should be more patient and rely on the court system to get what they wanted.

Calmly, King began writing his reply on the newspaper’s margins. The result was one of the most remarkable documents ever penned.

He began like this:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our ... activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas ... but since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

King then went on to explain why he was in Alabama in the first place, having been criticized for being an “outsider.”

... I am here, along with several members of my staff, because we were invited here. I am here because I have basic organizational ties here. Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. 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 then went on to explain why he used the methods he did instead of simply “being patient” and “waiting for the courts.”

You may well ask, “Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. 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. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. So the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

King understood, just like the Founding Fathers did, that things like freedom, liberty, and equality don’t come from passively waiting. They must be actively worked for.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” I guess 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 see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted ... as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep in your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day and night by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored;” when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tipetoe stance, never knowing what to expect next—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

And this is why I think Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is so valuable. Not all of us will personally face the same prejudices, hates, and challenges that he did. But those challenges, or others like them, will always exist. There will come a time, if it hasn’t already, where either we or someone we know will be forced to confront them. But in Martin Luther King Jr., we have an example of how to face those challenges with dignity and strength. Courage and compassion. With calmness and nonviolence.

This month, we have an opportunity to remember, to recognize, to honor that example.

MLK Jr. Day may not get a lot of attention in some quarters, but it’s a special holiday nonetheless. This year, I encourage you to take just a few minutes to think about the man and his mission. Our country rests on the shoulders of men and women who dared to stand up to injustice. From John Adams to Frederick Douglass, from Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King, Jr., from the nameless patriot of 1776 to the unheralded activist of 1963, we owe them a great debt.

However you choose to celebrate, I wish you and yours a happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.