Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many fortunate Americans will find themselves at home today, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. That may also mean they’re not reading blogs, but that’s how it goes.

A few years ago, I started a small personal tradition on this day dedicated to MLK: I re-read his letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Sure, the rest of the day may be given over to relaxation and the enjoyment of being free from work. But for a short period—the time it takes to read his eloquent letter—I recall a sorry part of our nation’s history, and the response of a man and a movement.

The letter is sometimes still assigned in schools, and I think that’s great. King’s insights speak to us just as powerfully today as they did in 1963.

King’s courage is well documented. But what we sometimes forget—and what this letter reminds us—is that he had to be just as courageous with his “allies” as with his enemies. And that is what makes this letter such compelling reading for me. He wrote not (just) for a larger audience; instead, he wrote to fellow clergymen, many of whom were tsk-tsking his efforts to fight segregation.

Many of us can be loud and proud as we face a full-throated opponent. But how many have the courage and character to explain in loving and compassionate detail why our view should win the day? That was King’s task here, and his great achievement.

This speech is the origin of some famous phrases well known to Americans:

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

You can read the entire letter here. I encourage you to take the 15 or so minutes it will require. It’s a worthwhile reminder to all of us about our history and the personal and societal tasks that still stretch out before us.

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