Rereading an Old Letter

By Tuesday night I already knew the best decision I would make all week was to reread Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that afternoon.

The letter came to the world 50 years ago this week (not exactly published, it was mimeographed at first) and was written in response to an open letter to Dr. King from eight white ministers, calling his campaign of nonviolent direction action for equal access to public accommodations in Birmingham “unwise and untimely” along with the usual patronizing inanity passed around by comfortable people who resist change.   The letter is long for cyber age people used to no more than two screens full of text, but read it; it’s rewarding.

Of course the police in Boston went after men they believed to be Saudis.  How would they not? (It’s jarring, I know, but this is how my thoughts intrude on each other after the latest crisis.  How would they not?) It’s not easy distinguishing a lunatic or militia member from the white Boston faces in the marathon crowd, but it’s easy enough to see brown skin.  No cop wants to be the guy to let a perp get away.  Hell, they only caught Tim McVeigh because his contempt for the system ran so deep he refused to put license plates on his car.  Had he been saner or more strategic, who knows how many he’d have gone on to kill?

So what happens now, what happens next?  Is this jihad or homegrown nuts?  How will our response differ when we decide which it is, if either?  (I’ve seen many stories on the web discussing how pressure cooker bombs are a “favorite of Al Quaeda,” none pointing to veterans of Iraq and/or Afghanistan.  I don’t want to see baseless charges leveled at veterans, but why is it OK to point an aspersion in one direction but not another?) What will this mean for civil liberties?  How do brown-skinned Americans from the Middle East feel this week?  Aside from mistrust from their fellow citizens (again)?  How do dissidents?

Yesterday, the US Senate defeated all attempts to enact any restrictions on guns.  No limits on magazine size, no banning of phony “straw” sales, no enhanced background checks, nothing.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put photos on his facebook page mocking Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) over this.  Through the years, I’ve had a hard time getting angry with Senator McConnell, mostly because he looks so much like my late grandmother, but when I ponder how he doubled down and mocked the grief of those Newtown parents and the families of gun victims everywhere, I can only describe him as UnAmerican.  (Sorry Nanny McGrath, wherever you are.)

Those, however, are our lawmakers, right?  They represent us, even if 90 percent of Americans want enhanced background checks for gun purchases.  What did you expect?  What did those eight white ministers expect in 1963?  Read the part of Dr. King’s letter on law and its application.

“Sometimes,” he writes, “a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

So right now, as I type, we don’t know who set off the bombs in Boston.  Early word, now dismissed, was of Saudi men.  It wasn’t as bad as the speculation about Muslims in the immediate wake of the Oklahoma City bombing (McVeigh’s.  In 1995; six years before 9-11.)  Maybe we’ve learned a little bit.

We’ve heard about pressure cookers and nails and pellets.  We’ve heard about ricin being sent to a senator’s office and the White House, apparently from a homegrown nut.  (An Elvis impersonator, no less.)  Is this all happening again?

Another presidential prayer vigil, more photos – a smiling boy, young women who thought they had lives before them.  Patriot’s Day in Boston.  I always get nervous this time of year.  The original Patriot’s Day – the battles of Lexington and Concord – is tomorrow, 19 April.  It’s a gruesome memorial day of American violence.  Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine.

And 50 years ago, Dr, King sat in a jail cell, writing to us.  To me, not yet two years old, to people not born then and not yet born now.  One thing that always marks me about his writing is that he never dumbed it down, even though his audiences often lacked education.  He never accepted that we would be less than we could be, as individuals, communities or a nation.  He challenged more than eight shortsighted ministers in that letter.  He challenged us all and a half-century on, we need as much, if not more, effort than ever to meet his challenge.

© Mark Floegel 2013

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