This week we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate him for his calls for unity and for his vision of a world where all people—“black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics”—are free. We celebrate the hope he inspired when he described his dream of a time when his children would not be “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And, we celebrate and acknowledge that we really have taken some steps toward realizing the dream.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, made at the March on Washington in August of 1963, is one of the most quoted pieces of writing of the Civil Rights movement. It acknowledges struggle, but focuses on hope. A few months before, Dr. King wrote his Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Written in response to “A Call for Unity”, a published statement from several white members of the clergy criticizing Dr. King and the non-violent protests in Birmingham, the letter takes a very different tone than his famous speech four months later. The letter is long and quite academic, but powerful in the frustration Dr. King expresses. It is worth reading, if you have a chance.
Rereading the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, I am struck by how many criticisms of the fight for justice remain the same after almost 60 years: The time is not right. Negotiation is better. Inconveniencing people will not help. Do not make anyone angry or uncomfortable. Be nicer...
We have come so far, but this week, and with Black History Month approaching, the Letter from Birmingham City Jail reminds me that if we want to see Dr. King’s dream come to fruition, we still have work to do. We must keep our eyes on the prize.
It is important to recognize the progress we have made in the areas of civil and social rights, because not doing so is a disregard for the great effort and work of so many on whose shoulders we stand today.