Today's responsive reading comes from "Letter from A Birmingham Jail," the most important piece Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, more important, even, than "I Have A Dream." As we all know, in August of 1963, the Dream speech inspired a nation with vision and eloquence during the historic March on Washington. Four months earlier, however, the Birmingham "Letter" had ignited the movement.
Think about the context. Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy had been arrested for participating in nonviolent action against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama and then thrown into solitary confinement. In jail, King got hold of a newspaper with a scolding letter written to him by eight white "moderate" Alabama clergymen. They called on King to slow down, to wait for a better time, to be patient, to refuse to engage in civil disobedience, to be nice. The letter made King furious, and in response he expressed profound disappointment in the church.
The Birmingham Letter haunts clergy of progressive congregations, at no time more than since the beginning in 2014 of the Black Lives Matter movement, the truest movement we have seen since the end of the Vietnam War. And by movement I mean a coalescing of spirit and action to overcome resistance to change, to equity, and to justice. Because, you see, this letter is about meeting resistance: the resistance of segregation laws to equality under the law, the resistance of white men with billy clubs and attack dogs to demands for justice, the resistance of the church to the creation of the kingdom and the Beloved Community here and now. "For years now," King writes, "I have heard the word "wait' . . . This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never' . . . There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience."
The cup of endurance runs over. Is there any one of us who cannot, with some imagination, understand that? And, so, ironically, in speaking truth to power, King's letter itself becomes resistance of the best kind: resistance to reluctance, fear, and privilege that try to stop the roll of justice. In essence, King holds up his symbolic hand and says, "Wait a minute! Hold your calls to patience. Hold your self-righteousness. Hold your timidity. Hold them back, and open your hearts and minds to justice now. " In his wonderful book Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance, United Church of Christ minister Robin Meyers says that in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King laid out not only a defense of moral resistance to immoral laws, but a sermon on "the shortcomings of timid moderation in the face of injustice." According to Meyers, the Letter so perfectly describes the reluctance of the church in our own time that "many [himself included] have been tempted. . . to petition to have the Letter from Birmingham Jail. . . included as the last book of the Bible in place of Revelations." (Oh, how I love the thought of it.)
Every Sunday morning, one congregation I served includes these words in its welcome, "We gather this morning as a beloved community of memory, resistance, and hope." At first, I struggled with that statement because of how much they were claiming and committing to by saying it. In spite of how we Unitarian Universalists often use it to indicate a community we love, "Beloved Community" is what King called his vision of human community in which each person, regardless of race, would be equally included with love and respect. The Beloved Community is a demanding ideal that we have not in reality reached. And so a community of resistance must be one that actively challenges and dismantles injustice. On this weekend, fifty-four years after the letter was written, the way to honor the legacy of King and all the other men and women of the Civil Rights movement is not through treating them as saints or doing one day of service on this weekend. And it is surely not by having a mattress sale. The way to honor the legacy is to try to keep it going, to resist actively the injustice we see every day of the year.
For those of us who are white, it means doing something very uncomfortable: resisting white privilege. The very term itself – white privilege – raises our negative resistance. No one wants to claim that label – privilege – because it suggests we don't deserve what we have – and, most critically, it shifts the burden from other people demanding power to us giving some of it up. But white privilege is real, and it doesn't mean we ever intended, as individuals at least, to have it. The definition is easy: white privilege is having unearned advantages because of the color of your skin. In real life, it means not having to defend that you really deserved a job or admittance to a school. It means being more likely to be admitted to the school or land the job to begin with. It means not being pulled over for driving in a neighborhood not your own and not being followed while running in track shoes near your home. It means police thinking twice before shooting. It means being given the benefit of the doubt. And sometimes it means survival.
Let me tell you a story that sums it up in an everyday way, a story included in the powerful documentary, "Cracking the Codes." Two women, Joy DeGruy and her sister-in-law Kathleen, along with Joy 's ten year old daughter, stood in a grocery store line together, Kathleen, a biracial woman with very light skin and blue eyes, was in front of Joy, an obviously black woman. When Kathleen reached the cashier, she wrote a check for her groceries, which the young white cashier immediately accepted. Kathleen then moved a few feet away to wait for her sister-in-law. The cashier rang up Joy's groceries; Joy wrote a check, and the young woman said, "I'm going to need to see two pieces of identification." At this point, Joy's ten year old daughter visibly tensed and asked her mother why they were asked for something not requested from her aunt. Concerned about her daughter and aware of the two restless older white women in line behind her, Joy decided to say nothing and pulled out the identification. The cashier took the information down, but then she pulled out the bad-check book and started flipping through it, looking for Joy's name. The women behind Joy started whispering loudly.
At that moment, Kathleen, who had watched the interaction, stepped up and asked the cashier, "Why are you doing that? You didn't do it with me." "Well, you come here all the time," the young woman said. "That's not true," Kathleen replied. "It's my sister-in-law who shops here frequently; I've only lived here for three months." At this point, the manager came over and, we assume, brought the situation to conclusion – except of course it was not concluded in the heart and mind of Joy and her daughter. In fact, the heart -breaking part of this story is that by the time the cashier started searching the bad-check book, Joy's daughter was sobbing uncontrollably. Although only ten years old, she had been there before; her world was being shaped by suspicion and diminishment.
Here's my question for myself, and for you. Say you are not Joy's sister-in-law, but you happen to be standing behind her in line. Say you see the person in front of her have the privilege of not being humiliated and suspected, but Joy is. Would you speak up? Would you resist injustice? Would you be willing to give up a few minutes of your day, slow down the line, possibly be confronted or embarrassed, or even arrested? Would you be willing to become an agent of change? A person who truly seeks to create the Beloved Community of which Dr. King dreamed? It is important to take to the streets to protest egregious acts of injustice in the relative anonymity of a crowd, and it is important to advocate for changes in law by calling your congressional representatives. But it is also important to do the acts of resistance aimed at hearts and minds, the acts that challenge the way things are, the acts in which we put ourselves on the line that divides us by race . . . or any other condition of our humanity.
Acting to dismantle injustice, even when we have privilege, is certainly in keeping with our heritage, particularly our Universalist heritage, which affirms that we all share the same destiny. The late Universalist Gordon Bucky McKeeman wrote, "Hell is, in fact, a burning issue, for it is the issue of separation, whether we can, with safety and impunity, set up little islands in the human experience and therefore protect ourselves against any relationship with the mainland. And Universalism says unequivocally it cannot be done." It is much the same as Martin Luther King speaking of the "inescapable network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny."
If the "Letter from A Birmingham Jail" replaced the Book of Revelations in the biblical canon, I wonder what it might be called. How about the Book of Resistance? It would be a text worth embracing, a text for a new age, a text for the Beloved Community.
Copyright Susan Milnor 2017
- Butler, Shakti, Producer and Director, "Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequality. " (For links to acquiring, visit world-trust.org).
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
- Meyers, Robin. Spiritual Defiance: Building A Beloved Community of Resistance. Yale University Press, 2015.