It is an honor to be with you today. As you know, I am from Charlottesville, and would like to thank all of you in this room who provided your love and prayers to our city in the aftermath of the horrific events of August 11 and 12, 2017. It made a big difference to our city and to me personally. Suffice it to say, there are many different views about War Memorials and whether they should be removed from public spaces, but, make no mistake, all of us are united in our feelings that there is no place for white supremacy and racial oppression in this great Commonwealth of ours.
Ladies and gentlemen, I first met Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fall of 1968. You might say, “how can that be,” since he was assassinated in April 1968. I say this because I did not really understand King until I entered college in the fall of that year. Until that time, I was a young, naïve, white teenager from a public high school in Syracuse, New York, where there were few African American students. I grew up Catholic, the oldest of five children. I was an altar boy and even had thought about entering the priesthood. But my religion was largely divorced from this world. Until King!
His message of nonviolent action changed my life. He is famous for the “I Have a Dream” speech, but my inspiration came from another one of his writings – the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” The time was April 1963, and King had come to Birmingham to lead non-violent, civil disobedience in a city with its infamous sheriff, Bull Connor. After sit-ins led by King, he was arrested and jailed in harsh conditions. The city was in turmoil, and a group of eight white clergy wrote and published an open letter called “A Call for Unity,” in which they criticized King as an “outsider” who had come to Birmingham just to stir up trouble and was using the wrong tactics to do so.
The Open Letter was smuggled into King’s jail cell, and it prompted him to write his own letter in response. It begins “My dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’ . . . But since I feel that you are men of genuine goodwill and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” This was classic King.
He immediately set upon wrapping his activities in the mantle of the Bible. “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” said King. “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns … so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
King then linked the Birmingham struggles to others occurring in the country. “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” he explained. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
With the above statements, he had set forth the rationale for people of goodwill to help others in need, even if they did not live in the same community. He then proceeded to describe the power of non-violence in confronting evil. With King, non-violence was not just a way of life, but a strategic approach to confronting injustice. King believed in the tension inherent in non-violent tactics and drew analogies to the early Christians as well as the patriots of the Boston Tea Party. While doing this, he emphasized that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In other words, citizens have a responsibility to act rather than to “wait” until the oppressor extends justice. In King’s view, “non-violent direct action seeks to create … a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
And then he cites Scripture. “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you,” was, in King’s view, an example of Jesus as an “extremist for love.” Like Jesus, said King, so too was “Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’”
Today, as during this session, let us remember and celebrate the vision and strategy of King. And keep in mind this quote which is more timely than ever:
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Let’s hope we can see these stars and the scintillating beauty sooner rather than later.
Thank you for inviting me today.