Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as the March on Washington drew to a close. The nation was wowed. But as good as the speech is, to appreciate the full range of King’s gifts, you must read the letter from Birmingham jail he wrote five months earlier. As an example of persuasive writing, it’s top-drawer. It matches the “I Have a Dream” speech in imagery and musicality, but surpasses it in rhetorical genius.
The letter was written in response to an editorial King read in jail, written by eight white clergymen. The preachers repudiated him and as an outside agitator, a Georgian meddling in Alabama business. They called him and his fellows extremists, taking unlawful actions that fired up tensions best left tamped down. They told him and his colleagues to be patient. Wait. These things take time.
Point by point, Dr. King refuted their arguments.
A meddling outsider? Whatever state we live in, we are all citizens of the same country, he observed. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
An extremist? He reminded the clergy that Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson could also be viewed as extremists. “The question is not whether we will be extremists,” King wrote, “but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
Be patient? In a single sentence that is King at his best, he schooled his readers on the realities of being black in America:
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 … Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; 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; 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?"; 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; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; 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."; 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; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
Finally, Dr. King took on the clergymen themselves, gently rebuking them:
On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward…. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest? ….
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church…. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington made it clear that a great man was in our midst, a man whose love of learning and gift of language were the team of horses that carried his deep faith, bright hope, and unfailing love to the rescue of the issues of his time. Martin Luther King, Jr., was so bright he had completed his first bachelor’s degree at the age of 19 and had married, taken on his first congregation, and completed a second degree and his doctorate by the age of 25. He was only 34 years old when he wowed us all at the Lincoln Memorial. And he had less than 5 years left to live.
What might have been had this blazing torch not been extinguished in 1968? We will never know. Only his words live on, a source of inspiration always, but also, always, a tragic reminder of all that was lost when we lost Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is Mary Sheehy Moe, retired, but still at heart that lover of language commonly called an English teacher.