Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, January 17th, is celebrated in the United States as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

Often it's what has been come to be known as the "I have a dream" speech which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C., that people first think of when they reflect on King.  

But for me its his letter from a Birmingham Jail. 

It's long.  In fact, in the letter he apologies for the length of the document .... "Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time." but he continues to explain why the letter is so long .... "it would have been much shorter" he wrote "if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?"
King had been criticized for, according to the other local clergymen, "unwise and untimely" behaviour.  And he decided to respond to the criticism.  Unusual for him but, he wrote, "since I feel that you are men of genuine good will 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."

King compares himself to St. Paul.  "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 home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, 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."

He talks about the difference between 'legal' and 'illegal' acts.  "We should never forget" he reminds the clergymen, "that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany."

He writes about his sadness with the actions - or lack thereof - of the "white moderate".  He writes about "the laxity of the church".

So much has changed.  And yet so little.
So on this Martin Luther King Jr. day, on what would have been his 82nd birthday, take a moment to read his letter from a Birmingham Jail, reflect on his message then and what we can do now to make a difference.