Dear Dr. King,
As you no doubt recall, on Good Friday fifty-two years ago, you found yourself under the eyes of a guard and under the burden of proof. When the SCLC ignored the court-ordered injunction against your march in Birmingham, you and your fellow “agitators” were arrested for disturbing the peace. You will remember that you scratched together a letter in the margins of the day’s newspaper. Your fellow clergymen wrote “A Call for Unity” in that paper, prompting your eloquent and impassioned response. Today your letter has become a testament to the just cause of civil rights and is taught (though not near often enough) in high school and college classrooms around the country. I fear my own words too feeble and my experience too limited to properly answer your imprisoned cries for justice and equality, but I wonder what you might think about how the nation has progressed.
You once wrote in your Birmingham prison cell, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You wrote those words to affirm the moral principle that evil is the natural state of man, and that in the absence of good people confronting evil it will only spread its tentacles through our streets and farms and highways and homes. If it can happen legally in Mobile, it will happen legally in Montgomery. Should we stand by like the priest or the levite, the innocent will die bleeding on the road. For those of us who call on the name of Christ, our silence will condemn the innocent and nullify our Christian witness.
I am concerned that people, myself first of all, lack the moral will and fortitude to confront evil. I am concerned that your example falls fruitless to a cynical and selfish age. I am concerned that your words, powerful though they are, are manipulated to bring the powerful more power.
I am confident you did not live your life in the hopes that your birthday would become a national holiday, still less that Americans half a century later would use what your birthday has stood for as an extra day to sleep in. Knowing you as I do (as anyone can know a historical figure), my guess is that you would have used your extra day to be about the business of justice. Our corruption of the “holy day” demonstrates our tendency toward ease than toward holy labor. You are frequently invoked by politicians, celebrities, and clergy as an inspirational figure, but inspiration without perspiration creates a vacuous desolation. Your birthday means little if we do not remember, and our remembrance means nothing if we do not act.
You are likely disillusioned in how other groups have opportunistically capitalized on the success of your movement. I think of the misery endured by slaves in the early centuries of America and ask myself, does the union rep demanding more wages equate to the slave under the lash? His pathos is infused with the tones of Douglas and Garrison. His anger and societal revisionism is laden with Marx. In hopes of attracting many to his cause, he invokes your name and pulls out your quotes to prove the justice of his cause. But it is not only the advocate of economic equality who has appropriated your work. No one has set the dogs on supporters of the same-sex marriage movement, yet these too have adopted the tone, language, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Millions of Americans today see little difference between your march and the march for gay rights because they fail to make the distinction between status and behavior. Further, while praising choice they have failed to understand the responsibility of choice, and so fail to see how your movement has been made into a parody with the addition of transgender equality, the supposed next frontier of civil rights. Though societal norms, such as traditional marriage laws, are not themselves the arbiter of justice, they are likewise not flaunting justice simply by existing.
Finally, I am certain you are disappointed in how apathetic many have become to the cause of justice. It would seem too much is invested in the status quo to overcome the crippling inertia of inequality. You wrote often on the problem of ambivalence, of how not only the white man wouldn’t care to change things but how also both the affluent Negro and the dispirited Negro couldn’t care to change things. Far too many prominent voices have asserted that minorities have no chance at success in America. The race-baiting frauds like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have prospered with a message of oppression, but an oppression of their own communities, an oppression of the mind. Education, they are told, is a waste of time if the white employer will never give them a high-paying salary. Politicians, they are told, want to steal away whatever rights they do have. Nonviolent protests are nowhere near as profitable as the threat of legal action. The legacy of your successors is one of lethargic victimhood.
Sadly, so too is the legacy of your opponents. Too frequently contemporary white Americans are deaf to the calls for civil rights, associating them with the likes of Jackson and Sharpton. They see Sharpton at a Ferguson rally and assume that the cause surrounding Michael Brown must be the same as that surrounding Tawana Brawley: smoke without fire. They assume that affirmative action has done its part to eliminate racism and that a couple of laws solve it all. They assume that fifty years removed from the events of Mississippi Burning, a mere two generations have rooted out inequity. The effort to be colorblind is, sometimes, willful blindness.
On the one hand, much has changed. Institutional, de jure racism has been brought to heel. It still exists, as I was reminded by an older sister in my Sunday school class just last year. But Jim Crow laws have been struck down, minorities are not barred from voting (despite claims to the contrary with the “oppressiveness” of Voter ID Laws), and one cannot be legally denied employment on the basis of color, much less gender, religion, and age. For those with the eyes to see it, many do judge others by the content of their character.
On the other hand, we have a long way to go. De facto, relational racism still exists, and will always exist so long as there are differences. White women still fear the mythos of the angry, aggressive black man, while black men still fear the mythos of the angry white mob. Black people lack the benefit of the doubt police officers give whites. Believing still in the goodness of people, I believe many want these circumstances to change and are glad to play their part in ignoring stereotypes and treating each other as individuals. It is a battle that must be fought within—and among each other—and, if I may use your words, combating ignorance with knowledge and hate with love. But, as I said, we have a long way to go.
I sit in my comfortable Montgomery office, just a few miles from the birthplace of civil rights, and think too little about the struggle for racial equality. This city is sharply divided, geographically and ideologically, on the subject of race. It is one of those national subjects we’re “talking about” all the time in our speeches and cable news shows—but one which we never do anything about. Perhaps we don’t know what to do. But perhaps it starts with an intentional shift, the desire to sit in a different seat and to change the view.
The arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, but the end of that arc is often found only in eternity. Until then, and like you, we must do our part to urge it to bend closer toward our own time.