From Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Our world is physical. Learn to play defense – ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve The Dream. No one directly proclaims the schools were diesignated to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well, We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream.”
From “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
There is something about history that conveys a feeling of inevitability. So, it is easy to look back at Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963, pencil stub in hand, and imagine him confidently writing what he knew would be a work for the ages, words that would propel one of the most successful social justice campaigns in history and be proclaimed by presidents, recited by elementary school students, emblazoned on billboards and greeting cards.
I bring some of those words to you today from King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” to remind us that the truth is far different. In fact, the 34-year-old preacher who landed in a bleak cell on Good Friday was unsure whether the act of civil disobedience that brought him there – trumped up charges of violating a parade ordinance – had made any difference at all.
The Civil Rights movement was still young and had turned to its most ambitious target yet. Birmingham was a contradiction: a fast-growing city that was a center of the steel industry, it was also a town where racial segregation and the indignities of Jim Crow laws were locked in tight. Even though steel-working wages paid to blacks were half those paid to whites, they offered the best jobs around, and few were interested in rocking that boat.
Only a couple of years before, a white mob had attacked an integrated bus of Freedom Riders, beating passengers for 15 minutes before police arrived and they were allowed to move on. The mayor had closed all city parks and playgrounds rather than allow them to be integrated under a federal order.
Still, in January 1963 as Governor George Wallace was declaring “segregation now, segregation forever” in Alabama, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to target Birmingham with an economic boycott during the Easter shopping season. Just before Easter, though, the city of Birmingham had changed its form of government, shifting from a three-member commission that ruled with an iron fist to a mayor and nine-member council. And Bull Conner, the bitterest opponent of integration, had been defeated as mayor, though he remained in charge of the police.
The new mayor, Albert Boutwell, promised changes, and as the SCLC protests began few joined in. Many middle-class blacks and about three-quarters of black clergy joined most whites in opposing the protests, arguing that the city should be given a chance.
Sitting in jail, wondering what to do next, King found the inspiration for his next step in a front-page column in the Birmingham newspaper by eight prominent Alabama clergymen. They appealed for calmness and forbearance, describing the SCLC leaders as “outsiders” and their protests as “unwise and untimely.” They urged “our own Negro community” not to support the demonstrations and to “unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.”
Now, let’s pause a moment and consider that appeal, framed as it was in such reasonable language. You recognize the tone, right? We’ve all heard it, and I’ll bet many of us have used it. I know I have.
“Let’s just calm down now.
I’m sure we can work something out.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody likes conflict. We all want to get along, to resolve things. And that’s a good.
But what happens when what appears to be “reasonableness” is just a way of masking obstruction, a way of sweeping under the rug valid complaints of injury and oppression, a way of discounting the felt experience of people who see no hope of remedy?
It’s a problem stated perhaps most famously in that ancient Hebrew scripture, the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet complains, “I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying ‘What have I done?’ All of them turn to their own course like a horse plunging headlong into battle. . . . They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:5-6, 11)
There comes a point when we must pivot from the response that is reasonable to the one that the writer Cornell West calls, “radical,” a solution that goes to the root of the problem, that questions the most fundamental assumptions and argues for new ways of looking at the world.
In a collection of King’s writings that he compiled for our own Beacon Press, West argues that now nearly a half-century after King’s death we have lost sight of the radical edge of his work, of all the ways that his work questioned fundamental structures in American society and called us to larger lives.
We find the ground laid for that radical King in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Who knows? But for that front-page appeal from his critics, King may not have had the occasion or impetus at that point in his life to gather his thoughts in that way. We know he was depressed from the lack of response to the protests, editorials from national newspapers criticizing his action, and President Kennedy’s resistance to requests to help him. He was also sad at being away from his wife, Coretta, two days after the birth of their daughter, Bernice.
That column, though, ignited a fire in King, and he entered a white heat, writing so feverishly that some of his supporters worried for his state of mind. He began scribbling on the edge of the newspaper, then writing on sheet after sheet of toilet paper, all of which was passed in secret to his secretary, who did her best to decipher his crabbed script.
It is here amid personal reflections on his family’s experience with racism and musing over passages of scripture that he lays down how he understands his calling to a radical activism, non-violent but centered in a love that refuses to see the separations that Birmingham’s laws enforce. You know the words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he writes. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
He acknowledges that the purpose of his action is not to make peace but to stir things up: “To create such a crisis,” he says, “and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Those words may sound shocking, he says, but he makes no apologies: “There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth,” he says, and “now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Nothing much happened to the letter right away. Its addressed recipients never saw it until it was published elsewhere, and few newspapers were interested. It wasn’t until months later, when the Birmingham campaign entered a new stage with high school students leading the protests and TV cameras capturing images of them being sprayed with firehoses and attacked by dogs that people returned to the letter and found in it a blueprint for King’s actions.
King’s letter comes to mind on this Martin Luther King Sunday as I reflect on another “letter” of sorts that’s made its way into public consciousness – Ta-Nehsi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me.
Coates, a writer for the Atlantic magazine, wrote the book in the form of a letter to his teenage son as a way of sharing with him his own reflections on how race has shaped his life and pervades the way that each of us makes our way in the world.
It’s a hard book to read because it challenges us all to take stock – and in some ways, ownership – of the legacy of racism in which we each participate. And as Coates said in the excerpt I read earlier, people experience this racism, not in some abstract realm, but as a physical threat, as a threat to their bodies. And this separation we experience between white and black, he said, didn’t just happen. It was created over time as a way to elevate some people and diminish others.
“The elevation of being white,” he tells his son, “was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families . . . and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
It ranges from the brutality of slavery, to the horror of lynchings and Jim Crow indignities to all the ways that even today people who, in Coates words, are “different in hue and hair” suffer deprivation, loss and abuse because of it. We measure incremental gains in statistical measures without acknowledging how deeply this state of affairs remains marbled throughout American society.
We lose sight, he says, of the fact that the loss and suffering of African-Americans provided and continues to provide part of the underpinning for the success of what we call the American Dream: the idea that with enough gumption any of us can make it in the world, can achieve success and material comfort and be safe and secure. What our idolizing of “The Dream” omits, he says, is that in many cases what white people achieve depends on there being an underclass of black people to service them.
“The Dream,” he says, “is treehouses and Cub scouts . . . . And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs.”
It’s why, he says, black children growing up are taught different lessons than white children. “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good.’ . . . These words were spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as if they evidenced some undetected courage. . . (But) no one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good.”
Too often, as you heard in our reading earlier, Coates says that the lectures young black people receive on “personal responsibility” seem offered up more to the point of exonerating practices that have been tools of oppression for generations.
Coates tells his son something of his own growing up, how he escaped some close calls on the streets of Baltimore but found his way into an orbit of people who provided support for him. But he tells his son that he still fears for him.
“I’m sorry that I cannot make it okay,” he says. “I’m sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life.” And, he says, “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible, beautiful world.”
Like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Coates’ is a radical analysis of the state of affairs in this country. It goes to the root of the struggles we face, white and black, in seeing justice served.
And this gives us a moment to reflect on this word – “radical.” It’s got some buzz to it, doesn’t it? It feels disruptive, disorienting. And, let’s face it: we are comfort-seeking creatures. We want things to be OK, and we will go to some lengths to create some calmness and stability, if not serenity, in our lives, whatever the actual circumstances may be.
At the same time, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to his Alabama clergy detractors, there are times, for the health of a person, a system, a community, that we need to name the tensions that are among us, go to the very root of the problem, however indelicate that may be, and commit ourselves to bringing them to light so that they may be cured.
So, friends on this Martin Luther King Sunday let us with Dr. King and Ta-Nehisi Coates not hesitate to be radical in our work to free our own and our nation’s hearts of the scourge of racial oppression that dogs us still. Let us not turn to our own courses like horses plunging headlong into battle. Instead, let us own the work that is ours to raise our individual and community awareness. Let us join in common cause with those of all races committed to the ongoing work that frees us all.