How Long? As Long As It Takes. A Letter to My Friends for MLK Day 2018

Today is MLK Day, 2018, the day on which Americans pause to remember and honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his immeasurable contribution to American society, to its search for greater justice, and to its relentless pursuit of a more perfect union.

All across social media today, I see fellow Americans posting quotes from Dr. King with their expressions of gratitude for his wisdom and service. Frequently I see quotes from King’s letter from the Birmingham jail. Among those quotes that rock me are his assertions that he has been “gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” because “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not… the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than justice.” In that letter he concludes that many white moderates simply prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

I write to you today to encourage you. Let us not be the people too polite to correct the voices of bigotry, too afraid to hold the powerful to account, too concerned with order and not enough concerned with injustice. Take heart. It doesn’t have to be that way.

There is indeed tension in the air in America today. So many of us are shocked and disappointed to learn that racists remain among us, like the marchers in Charlottesville. (Perhaps also like the man currently occupying the White House.) So many of us are embarrassed, horrified, frightened, and sometimes even paralyzed by the level of vitriol between friends and neighbors. For the majority of American adults today, there has never been a time like this.

By contrast, some of our neighbors tell us that they are not shocked at all. They remind us that there have always been bigots in the world. They remark that human nature is a broken, sinful existence, and that we should simply anticipate that hate-filled voices will make themselves heard from time to time, especially when politicians bait and encourage them. Grow up, these voices seem to tell us. Have a sober view of reality, they seem to say, and then get on with life. Don’t get so exercised.

Neither point of view is right. To be shocked by the existence of racism is naïve. To accept it is unacceptable. Take heart. We can, really can, build a better peace, bridge the divides, bind the wounds, and make an America truly worthy of it’s first and most important declaration, that “all men are created equal.”

I grew up in Birmingham. I drove by or walked by that Birmingham jail countless times. I attended one of the first integrated high schools, in one of its first integrated classes. It was not that long ago when Birmingham was taking its first steps toward correcting its past. I am a witness to how far we’ve come.

Like you, and like every reader of present-day news, I am also aware that we have more work to do. At the same time, many of our fellow citizens are fatigued by the long battle, or they are in denial about its importance. We must press on. Today I am encouraging you to press on.

Unfortunately, for so many of our friends, it seems like we’ve been talking about correcting the legacy of racism forever, and they are tired of it. From their point of view, it somehow seems like an accusation every time someone observes that we still have work to do, as if they haven’t yet done their part, as if they personally harbor racial animus. To all of those friends, let me say this: Yes, indeed, we do still have work ahead, especially those of us – like you and I – who find bigotry to be the worst kind of human failing and the greatest cause of injustice in our world. This isn’t an accusation, and you mustn’t let yourself indulge that notion. It’s a call to re-enlist, because the work is not yet done.

When I was in law school, I spent one summer working back home in Birmingham. The amazing Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was relatively new, and the law firm for which I worked arranged an after-hours tour for all the summer clerks. How moving it was to see the actual jail door that had been removed from the actual cell where Dr. King penned his timeless letter! What I remember most vividly, however, was a conversation the following day, when a young woman, a law student at UVA who had grown up in the affluent suburbs of Birmingham, confessed to me that she had never known that MLK spent time in the Birmingham jail! She had never been taught about it! In fact, there were some big gaps in her knowledge of civil rights history, despite spending her entire school years living in the movement’s epicenter!

Some will conclude that she failed to receive education about America’s struggles for racial justice precisely because she grew up in Birmingham, and some will assume that racism permeated her schools. Because I grew up there, and because I’ve also lived in other regions of the country, I am persuaded that such an explanation is unsatisfactory. It pains me to say it, but my sense is that civil rights education is deficient just about everywhere, not just in Birmingham. In fact, everywhere I’ve lived, it has been clear that too few people have adequate appreciation of America’s civil rights movement. More importantly, not enough people appreciate the centrality of overcoming racism as we strive to achieve America’s vision for itself as a place where all persons are truly equal under the law. Whatever caused my fellow law student’s ignorance back in Birmingham, like many people she had regrettably failed to learn key aspects of our past, and that was both unfortunate and unacceptable. (It was also correctable, thank God.)

I am fairly certain that, like that young woman back in Birmingham, there are many people who, even today, do not yet know the story of civil rights in America, not even the story of Dr. King’s contributions. Or they’ve forgotten it. Either way, they do not yet see that story as their story — our common story.  We therefore have a duty to keep sharing the story and to continue talking about civil rights, the evils of bigotry, and a vision for a better world.

If you are one of my friends who feels weary of the conversation, or who feels somehow that the discussion always seems to accuse folks like you and me, I say this to you: Hang in there! Demonstrate your goodwill by joining the conversation. Join me in insisting that we not grow callous to the reality of racism. Yes, people are imperfect and there will therefore always be people who harbor evil in their hearts, but racism is a learned thing, which is good news: If it must be learned, then let’s ensure it is not taught. Or that it is unlearned. Racism doesn’t have to exist at all.

I think Dr. King might put it this way:

Are you weary of the march? Take heart by remembering that 70-year-old woman who walked to work every day during the Montgomery bus boycott, the woman King mentioned in his March 1965 speech in Montgomery. As King recalled, when she was asked whether she was weary, she said simply “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Dr. King encouraged us all with his reminder that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

For those of us asking “how long?” he might say “not long,” but, were he with us still today, I suspect he would also say “as long as it takes.”   Dear friends, take heart, and keeping marching forward.

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