I assign Martin Luther King Jr.’s ”Letter from Birmingham Jail” to the freshmen every term. It’s not an easy piece to read, and over the years I’ve come to know where they’ll get hung up. For example, they’ll press me to explain what King means when he says that “God’s judgment is on the Christian church as never before.”
“What does King mean by ‘hiding behind stained-glass windows’?” I ask them.
If they aren’t familiar with that expression, I try again. ‘”What does he mean, when he warns the church that if it continues along the path of becoming a social club, it will be rejected by the idealistic among the young?”
The kids handle that question better, because in the spectrum of their own churches, there are some that “preach the Bible,” and others that are pleasant places to socialize on Sunday mornings, to dress up a little bit, to hear an easygoing sermon about living better lives, without having to risk anything. That’s the social club to which King refers.
However, I point out, King is also critical of Bible-preaching churches, if they’re places you go to get high on God. And here I put my hands over my head and wave them like the evangelical congregations do on the TV ministries.
King sees the church as a place to get high, to be sure, but to get high by “getting down” –going shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed, at a cost to your social status; standing arm in arm against the oppressor, at a cost to your safety, to your worldly well-being. The main business of church is outside the building, King believes. As Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father.”
To Martin Luther King Jr., doing the will of God, attaining the kingdom of heaven, above all else requires that you actively champion a fair society—that you be a nonviolent, turn-the-other-cheek warrior for social justice. Society’s practices (so apart from its idealistic words) are often [TEXT CUT OFF] ous odds with social justice. That is [TEXT CUT OFF] wrote his letter from his jail cell, on scraps of paper smuggled to him by a trustee.
Look at King’s request to his Birmingham jailers that he and his fellow prisoners beallowed to join together to sing a hymn of praise before their dinner—a perfect example of getting high by getting down. When that hymn was sung, if a follower or two raised their hands over their heads and swayed, that would have been the time and place for it.
For their in-class essay on King, I ask the students to write about an experience they’ve had with a person of another culture or color that has altered their attitudes and/or outlook toward that race, for the plus or the minus. I tell them not to overlook a seemingly small event, because significant experiences often come in small packages.
They ask me for an example of what I mean. The experience that first comes to mind happened a pretty long time ago. I was moving out of downtown Detroit, just after the race riots of the summer of 1967. Everyday life had become too scary down there on Forest and 12th streets, with bullets flying and buildings burning.
King was still alive then, but his influence was declining in favor of other philosophies, for example, those of the then recently martyred Malcolm X, aligned with the Black Muslims, preaching an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, as opposed to turning the other cheek. King believed that the black man and white man would have to solve the question of racism together. Malcolm X and the Black Muslims believed it was time to give up on that idea, and that the problems of racism would have to be solved separately.
Even as a white man in the 1960s, I could see the point of Malcolm X’s thinking. He never said to strike first, as he has been demonized; rather, he said blacks should give back what is given to them, because that’s the way the white man will learn to back off. As opposed to walking the extra mile, loving your enemy, doing good to them who persecute you, Malcolm X was saying: ”You burn my house down, I burn your house down. . .. You call me ‘boy’ and my mother ‘lady,’ I call you ‘boy’ and your mother ‘lady.’ Now you know how it feels.”
Leaving Detroit, I was pulling a small trailer of belongings behind my car. I was traveling on a busy expressway through a recently riot-torn section of town, when the trailer started to sway badly, and I had to pull off to the side. As I struggled to fix the problem (one of the safety chains had broken, creating an imbalance), a car pulled up behind me and a big black man got out. Here comes trouble, I remember whispering to myself.
“Could you use a hand, brother?” he asked.
“My trailer was swaying,” I said, barely looking at him for fear of inviting a personal contact, “but I think I got it fixed.”
I showed him how I was reattaching the broken chain with a couple of twisted coat hangers.
“I’ll follow you for a mile or so, to see if you’s all right,” he said, walking back to his car.
“It’s going to take me a minute or two,” I said.
“I’m in no hurry,” he said.
As he got back into his driver’s seat, I noticed these three little brown faces sitting in a row beside him, smiling at me. They had been watching the whole thing, their Daddy stopping along a busy expressway to ask a stranger, from another race, if he needed a hand.
I didn’t have any children then. I wasn’t even married. But in those children’s eyes I saw the father I would like to be in my children’s eyes one day.