Letter from Birmingham Jail reemerges with enormous influence at various demanding points in my life. I sit with it during this sanctioned slow season.
The first time, as a High School sophomore writing about the 1963 KKK bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that made martyrs of 4 little girls, Dr. King’s words fashioned a life mission for my broken-hearted rage: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”
My second encounter with the letter met with my sense of purpose in grad school: “so must we see the need…to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to majestic heights of understanding.” These words provided impetus for approaching decisions. I chose my career path—a creative tension response to the yearning for freedom—a path to liberation for sacred community. I centered my graduate studies on community organizing, health policy, and social change ideologies.
Now in my profession of equity-focused systems change, I answer the call. The criticism and vilification I experience for advocating direct action inside institutions and systems evoke the corrosive questioning of King’s contemporaries, the compartmentalized critique of Civil Rights activists throughout recent decades, and especially the current contempt for BLM and other activists.
What I find most disappointing is not the critical analysis of activism, but the dominant/subordinate binary used to craft the argument—as though there is only one way to generate a future where we are all free.
King spells out the way direct action generates both intellectual and tactical tension. He postulates that the architecture of equitable systems and the disrupters of harmful social norms are two sides of the same coin. He did not stop with identifying interpersonal racism. He explicitly named the way policies and social institutions of power (economic, justice, education, and religious) are all made of individuals, needing immediate and radical transformation if liberation is to be our shared inheritance.
What I find most disappointing is not the critical analysis of activism, but the dominant/subordinate binary used to craft the argument.
Creative tensions make room for a future that does not ignore the past. Instead, the future uses the past as a reminder to intentionally marry the work of disruptive agitation and innovation at our moral intersections. To generate new value networks and structures that model human flourishing. Inside and outside of institutions.
Dr. King’s letter from a jail cell long ago continues to occupy my life, more relevant now than the 17-year-old me ever imagined. I return often to its pages. And today, I take up one of his closing thoughts with meditative and prayerful hope, that “in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation.”