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King’s letter

As the Star’s editorial page today made no mention of Martin Luther King, we thought it might be nice to show that this wasn’t always the case. This editorial, which carried the headline above, appeared January 15, 2001.

In the spring of 1963 Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement were at a low ebb. King had attracted much opposition from mainstream America. Most of the nation’s newspapers, civil authorities and even clergy urged the determined civil rights leader not to violate a court-ordered injunction against a march in Birmingham, Ala. King’s critics called for calm and restraint. King’s decision to defy the injunction demonstrated his great courage and resulted in the classic defense of civil disobedience: Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

King faced opposition to the court order not only from the world at large, but also from his closest allies and his father. On the eve of the march, he asked the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy to join in the protest, which assuredly would result in their arrest and yet more scorn from the world at large. Abernathy asked King to obey the injunction, according to the account in Taylor Branch’s seminal work, “Parting the Waters.” Branch’s book also relates the conversation between father and son:

“King replied firmly that he had to march. ‘If we obey this injunction, we are out of business,’ he said.

“Daddy King sagged visibly and shifted in his seat, as though pawing the floor. ‘Well, you didn’t get this nonviolence from me,’ he said. ‘You must have got it from your mama.’

” ‘I have to go,’ King repeated softly. ‘I am going to march if I have to march by myself.’ ”

Abernathy finally consented, saying he had to find a replacement minister for his congregation’s Easter services. As expected, the marchers were arrested.

Once in jail, King was struck by a newspaper story that reported local clergymen were critical of the civil rights leader’s defiance of the law. King began to scribble a reply, first starting in the margins of the story, then jumping to other spots in the paper where there was room to write.

King’s letter explained that he could only obey just laws, and he explained that unjust laws must be disobeyed. He also argued forcefully that the civil rights movement was troubled less by the Ku Klux Klan than from white moderates, who urged patience and caution.

King explained that he hadn’t the patience and could not wait. “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, ‘Wait,’ ” he wrote. Then follows a 310-word sentence that stands as a monument to the need for social justice and equality, eloquently describing why King was moved to action:

“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 policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

The nation has made great progress since this letter was written. But the hearings in Florida on the rejection of African-Americans at the polls are a stark reminder – on this day that we honor Martin Luther King – that his struggle is far from finished, that a thinly veiled residue of racism still clings to the nation’s social fabric, and the struggle for equality and social justice continues.

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