Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Past Letter Reflects a Current Movement
The dawn of the New Year is a time for renewal and the welcome of a “brand new” start. The first month of the year is also a vibrant reminder of the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we celebrate his birthday as a national holiday in less than a week.
The father of the Civil Rights movement will be recognized for his contribution and sacrifice for the fight for African-Americans and others who had no voice of freedom. His historic march in Selma, Alabama — leading nearly 50,000 people — has Hollywood repeatedly reminding us of his greatness.
Decades of groundbreaking laws and mandates from the Voting Rights Act, Brown v. Board of Education to Roe v. Wade were influenced by the model of Dr. King’s Civil Rights led-movement, igniting other advocate groups to mobilize their rights.
There has been a great group of then-young leaders who have had the honor of working diligently beside Dr. King through some of America’s most horrific moments — facing the brutality of racism and hate in our backyard.
Rev. Jesse Jackson — one of the more familiar figures — built Operation Breadbasket to fight for justice and provide resources for economic strength for people of color. The organization was one of several in Chicago whose mission was to provide programs to Black people in job training and essentials-of-living needs. Over the last four decades, Operation Breadbasket has developed into Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, still a wavering voice in the African-American community, but the energy of younger activism has overshadowed our elders.
As groups such as Black Lives Matters, Hands Up and Mothers of the Movement have sprouted up throughout our country — protesting modern-day lynchings committed by police officers from small to major cities — deja vu rears its familiar head.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
As a young pastor and the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King wrote a powerful letter from a Birmingham city jail cell. He was arrested and held after protesting segregation and discrimination laws along with groups that sat-in at counters who refused to serve Black residents.
Dated April 16, 1963, the letter is about the importance of demonstrations and preserving people’s rights to live as human beings.
“In any nonviolent campaign, there are four basic steps: (1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustice is alive; (2) negotiation; (3) self-purification; and (4) direct action,” the Atlanta pastor wrote.
In the present, we use similar tactics with the flick of our fingertips with just a swipe across our mobile devices. The results can be empowering, but it can also be dangerous, as wrong or fake information can easily be believed and interpreted for self-gain. The strength of technology has played in our favor with the power of video, and now, live streaming.
The police dashcam of the Chicago 17-year-old Laquan McDonald — brutally shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke — was compared to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955.
Dr. King continues in his letter, “We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most segregated city in the United States.”
Unfortunately, King’s journey to Chicago in August 1966 would challenge his findings as segregation was and still is a “tale of two cities.” His attempt to show that if he can temporarily move to the northern city to break the racial barrier, he could influence a grassroots reach across communities in other cities.
The historic march in Cicero and Marquette Park would reveal to many outsiders how disturbingly racist many white residents from these areas were toward Black people. He would make several trips to Chicago, lighting a fire under the Black community and influencing the mobilization of others such as the Black Panthers. His methods of non-violence and peaceful interaction were challenged by adversaries such as Malcolm X, but both men later engaged in a mutual respect and admiration for each other.
In 1964, Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, shutting down a viable economic vein throughout the city. He also led the boycott of young people in Birmingham against segregation, risking their lives. (please delete)
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” said King.
Over 50 years since King’s death, we have felt a level of gradual tensions that were shadowed by the presence of having the nation’s first Black president. Although Barack Obama was not the first Black candidate to run for the highest office in the land, his presence represented an overdue shift of change and power.
Fruit of His Labors
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, fought for by King and other civil rights groups to register millions of Black voters, was just as strong as President Bill Clinton’s influence on the community. The laws that are put in place to benefit every U.S. citizen across the nation have since been applied to advocates of immigration reform — protecting children of immigrants born here; gay marriage — allowing same-sex spouses to have the same rights as heterosexual couples; and health care rights — passing the Affordable Care Act.
Reading the words from King’s letter is eerily ”here and now” with key civil rights laws being threatened by the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. There is nothing ”old school” or dated about the depth of this letter. In fact, it is a blueprint that is powerful for productive activism today.
The generation disconnect is more evident today than the days of King and his peers. As working-class Blacks crossed over railroad tracks to clean white folks’ homes, work as nannies, cooks, landscapers and other labored jobs, their hard work was the catalyst to send their children to college. Their children were able to send their children to college or provide a better life, but as time passed, the reality of racism was shielded. Executing the possibilities of King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and the march on Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963 rocked the country to the core and rippled throughout the most rural parts of the world.
As in his address engaging hundreds of thousands of people from various cultural backgrounds and race, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
In his letter, Dr. King says, “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 have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your Black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society . . .”
How far have we come since this letter was written from the jail cell in Birmingham? We fight through an unbalanced criminal justice system built on the growing platform of privatization with about 1 million African-American males out of 2.3 million occupying prisons, according to an NAACP Criminal Justice report. Families with single parents or grandparents are laden with the responsibilities of raising their grandchildren.
We reflect on the words of Dr. King as well as his accomplishments because, aside from the uphill battles we face, the fight of our ancestors has shown significant opportunities for African-Americans.
From the determination and confidence of Rev. Jesse Jackson to run in 1984 for president to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama being elected in 2008, the journey is a reflection of many “firsts” along the way.
The first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall; Maynard Jackson, the first Black Atlanta mayor; Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American female U.S. senator; Guion Bluford, the first Black astronaut launched in space, to Halle Berry becoming the first African-American Oscar winner for Best Actress in a Motion Picture.
For many Black Chicagoans, our biggest “first” was the election of Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago, an era in politics that many following generations have felt is hard to duplicate.
For many political and community leaders who reminiscence about the Washington era, it’s a reminder to them what once was impossible to reach. The civil rights movement provided an opening for opportunities that were denied for Blacks, and as we bid farewell to the first African-American president to usher in a new one on Jan. 20, we will witness a new wave of movement to maintain these rights.
As we move into celebrating the legacy of Dr. King’s great sacrifice and his 88th birthday, we reflect on the hard work that was laid, opening up so many doors. But as we witness the prospective appointment of Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions as our nation’s next U.S. attorney general, the threats of going backward are imminently at our door.
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not-too-distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.”
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