In this week’s edition of The Bison, there is an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and before that excerpt you will see a brief editor’s note that I wrote to frame the piece. In this editor’s note, I say that King’s message in this letter is just as relevant for us today as it was for his original audience. I wanted to use this space to explain why I say that.
I imagine that some readers might read that comment and be a little confused. I imagine some might think, “Um, wasn’t King trying to address segregation and voting rights? And didn’t the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 solve that? I get that this is a great letter and was important in changing public attitude back then, but why would you say that this letter is still relevant now?”
As much as I would love to think that King’s dream has been actualized in this country, it is impossible to look at the facts and seriously suggest so. Let me share three aspects of King’s life and legacy that we can still learn from today.
First, King identified “the White moderate” as a greater “stumbling block” for racial equality than racist extremists. It can be easy to see groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis and scapegoat them as the only ones holding our nation back from racial reconciliation. King rejected that notion, and instead pointed out how the silent White majority is typically the central driving force (or barrier) for real change in a democracy. With great privilege comes great responsibility, and that is just as true today as it was when King sat in a Birmingham jail.
Second, today we typically only celebrate King’s work up until 1964-65. It is important to remember that King did not suddenly stop his activism, but instead just became increasingly unpopular. King never stopped fighting for social justice; mainstream America just stopped supporting his work as he moved beyond more “acceptable” changes and towards more controversial changes. In a 1967 interview, King spoke of a “new phase” of the civil rights movement that was more concerned with “genuine equality” than the earlier phase of the 1960s, which merely focused on gaining full citizenship rights. King also initiated the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967, which sought to address the growing economic inequality in American society. Tragically, King had little opportunity to make much progress on these initiatives.
Which brings me to my final point: let’s not forget that King was assassinated for his activism. The most celebrated voice of racial equality and nonviolent protest in American history could not even make it to 40. King’s message was so controversial that he was killed for it. So why would we assume that his work has been finished or that his message wouldn’t still apply to us now?
Before I close, let me acknowledge that these are the words of a White writer trying to talk seriously about race, and that I am clearly not the go-to person for such insight. My intention in writing this piece is merely to do what I can to prep the ears for people to better hear the words of more important voices, such as King’s. As someone speaking with as much privilege as one could desire, I am deeply grateful for voices such as King’s, who have helped open the eyes and ears of people like me — people who tragically would often never even hear the cries of the oppressed living just down the street.