It is from the stench of a dimly lit Alabama jail that Martin Luther King Jr. examined the soul of our culture and delivered a writing that left it naked and exposed. Being a victim of the unjust crimes of the day, he was able to display the underlying prejudices which existed even in those who claimed to disagree with the crimes of racism. These prejudices, being exposed, can still be seen in the fiber of our culture today. Those who say they stand for what is “right” and “just” can often be moved into inaction by what is “comfortable” and “easy”. It is the responsibility of those who believe that righteousness and justice can be woven into our culture to provide a tension to those who have the ability to act.
King understood the importance of this tension when he said, ‘Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.’ He understood that action was their greatest asset while inaction was their greatest deterrent. The action that King chose was nonviolent direct action which would, in turn, bring the tension that would lead to the confrontation of the issue. In reading how much thought went into the time and location of these direct actions helps us to understand that the purpose was to let a great multitude see, understand and ‘feel’ the pressures of racism on their black community. King wanted the consciences of the average white citizens to be made aware of the festering problems of their culture.
These consciences, raised in a community that sanctioned and approved of racism, were not easily awakened. Even the Christian community, which was known to preach of love, grace and mercy, put a notice in the public paper calling Dr. King’s actions “unwise and untimely”. It was this very comment that inspired King to write a rebuttal to the Christian community in the South. King had chosen to take his axe and chop at the root of the issues that plagued the culture. The root was not the actions that were taken place, but the strongholds which had taken root in the people’s minds. He had chosen to fight against the only ‘reality’ that those in the South understood which were the perceptions of the people and the laws of the land.
According to King, laws can be divided simply into two categories: just and unjust. Just laws are those that a majority compels a minority to follow and that is willing to follow itself while unjust laws are those that a majority wants to compel a minority to do while being unwilling to do it themselves. The feat that King faced was getting the majority to understand the plight of the minority and bringing them to action. For truly there were many in the majority who felt in their heart that racism was wrong, but was paralyzed in the headlights of tradition and comfort. Understanding this, King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” It is only through the repeated televised beatings, imprisonments and crimes committed against blacks that this ‘moral majority’ was awakened and able to see the unjust laws forced upon minorities.
The fight remains today and the soldiers carry the torches or yesterday’s heroes. King, being a hero and a statesman, exhorts us to stand fast; to link arms and walk in unity; to rely on the help of the Almighty. Throughout the United States we will continue to fight for what is “right” and “just”. Whether it is voting rights or poverty, we will not settle for half truth or watered down legislation; we won’t stop at empty promises or false pretenses; we won’t slow out of personal comfort or easiness. The banner is raised and we will march on alongside those who have been martyred before us for the battle rages on. I agree with King as he spoke to a group of sanitation workers when he said, “I’ve seen the Promised Land… (and) I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
King, Martin Luther. Letter From Birmingham Jail, Birmingham, AL, April 16, 1963
King, Martin Luther. Address at March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963 (SCLCT, INP)
King, Martin Luther. I’ve Been to the Mountaintop Speech, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968