Thomas Griffin (7/17/20)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered for numerous qualities and moments, but most people are not aware of his tremendous writings. We all know of his courageous stand against injustice, his “I have a dream” speech and the fact that he was killed for the change he desired to bring about. However, there is one piece of prose that is pivotal to investigate at this point in time.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written while he was imprisoned in 1963. King received a message from a local government official that his actions were not wise, that he should urge his following to show patience; wait for empty dialogue rather than pursue sit-ins and marches. King responded with a letter that personalized the civil rights movement in several moving ways and wrote a recipe for successful reform that is worth revisiting now, more than ever.
In these chaotic, unsettling, and pivotal times we must look towards the example of those who came before us who fought the good fight through a righteous anger that never incited or engaged in violence. Martin Luther King Jr. died at the hands of violence, which violated the clear message of the movement he guided: any attempt to accomplish change through physical attacks on persons or property only leads to disruption, hatred, and evil gaining victory instead of the good.
King referred, in his letter, to Socrates who would enter the town square and simply ask an exhaustive number of questions to those he encountered. The use of interrogatives caused those he met to have tension in their minds. Did they really know anything? Did they understand themselves or reality? What were their lives oriented towards? His mission was to create tension in the minds of his listeners in order to educate the whole person. The pursuit of knowledge and true change runs towards success when tension is the starting point, and when tension brings about true discussion.
King used this same method in regards to the reform of civil rights. He used the understanding of tension in his letter to show that waiting is not an option, and that his way of reform is both necessary and effective. Tension must come before action which is why he stated his lack of fear in the face of rising tensions. The reason why he could no longer wait for empty dialogue and discussion is clear as day to those who sit on the side of oppression.
King Jr. gave a list of reasons why he couldn’t choose patience any longer, including but not limited to: having to explain to your daughter why she can’t go to the amusement park that she saw the commercial for on television because it is only for white people, having to sleep in your car with your family on long roadtrips because no motel will accept you, and having to read an infinite number of signs that say “white” and “colored.” King said that once you have these experiences, along with countless other forms of degradation, only then can you understand why he cannot wait any longer.
These examples are what drove Martin Luther King to pursue, not violence and destruction of this he disagreed with, but it pushed him towards civil disobedience and standing up for those who had no voice. These are the reasons why he had a legitimate and unavoidable impatience. These are the reasons why he gave his life for the Civil Rights Movement, with his energy and with his blood.
Today, we each have the true opportunity to allow the tension in our country to work for a good that is founded upon the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tension and impatience must lead to factual discussion and dialogue. There must be time set aside to dive into practical solutions rather than run around pointing fingers and throwing political jabs. This is exactly the empty dialogue King could not stand for.
To honor King Jr. our nation ought to take a page from his notebook, who accomplished more than any other person for Civil RIghts and gave his life for it. Our country can live through periods of dramatic tension and impatience, in fact, we rise better from them. However, success will only occur if we use that tension for coming together rather than sowing division, spreading love rather than inflicting pain, and discussing facts that will impact lives rather than spewing feelings that only feed our own personal biases.
Martin Luther King wrote from a jail cell in 1963 in Birmingham, but his message is craving the attention of the entire American audience now, in this present moment. We must rise together to use tension and impatience for uplifting our society, not destroying it.
King gave his life for a cause that continues, let us honor his sacrifice with a move towards true dialogue and make his dream come true.
Thomas Griffin teaches Apologetics in the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.
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