Author: Steve Mahr
January 17, 2020
It was in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that Dr. King wrote the now-famous quote,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
How true this statement is. But the focus of Dr. King’s letter is directed at responding to white, Christian moderates who considered King’s message and nonviolent direct actions to be inappropriate and poorly timed.
January 20th is Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, and a day we often remember the man and his impact on our country. We think about Civil Rights and marches. Sometimes we read articles or books and learn about the complicated truths of the man Martin in contrast with the prophet and revolutionary Dr. King. I would like to propose that this year on Dr. King’s birthday, we consider why we ever needed a leader like Dr. King in America and what we can do about it.
A great place to start is reading Dr. King’s letter.
As I write this reflection, I am keenly aware of my whiteness. I am acutely aware of how easily I move in and out spaces unnoticed. My marriage is a traditional commitment between a man and a woman. My gender, sexual orientation, and skin tone (among other things) create a reality for me that often goes in my favor, and the bonus of it all is that I’ve done nothing special to get that favorable reality. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about privilege.
Honestly, it’s great. Those of you with privilege know what I’m talking about. As a business owner and manager, I often operate with unquestioned authority; in church, I can slide into leadership positions with general ease; and on the road, I am never needlessly pulled over. Privilege is a gift. With privilege comes power. Not to veer away from Dr. King and into the Marvel universe, but I feel the need to quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And this is what sits with me as I reflect on Dr. King’s legacy and letter.
As a person with significant privilege, what am I responsible for?
The conversation often goes sideways here.
Did I enslave people?
Did I turn the dogs loose and fire hoses on?
Did I lynch anyone?
Have I used the n-word?
Most of us have not done these things. And most of the people Dr. King was writing to when he wrote that letter from his jail cell in Birmingham hadn’t either.
He was writing to the bystanders of injustice.
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years, I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Those of us with privilege who love justice must not sit idly by while injustice happens to our neighbors. It’s uncomfortable, but we must lean in and participate in actions that lead toward justice.
Dr. King writes,
“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
Dr. King makes a powerful point, which should lead us to get curious.
How would anyone know the underlying causes of any injustice?
While the underlying causes of any widespread injustice are almost always complex, the answer to this question is quite simple. We listen.
Take a moment to reflect on who you are listening to. What do you watch? What radio or podcast do you listen to? Who are the authors you read or the musicians you listen to? Who are the community members that you are listening to most often?
When I reflected on this a couple of years ago, the answer was evident to me: White, straight men. I love me some Jack Kerouac and Wilco. My favorite movie was directed by Terrance Malick and starred Brad Pitt. I listen to Steve Inskeep on NPR on the regular. My favorite Grey’s Anatomy character is Alex Karev.
This realization led me to need to make a change in what I consume. I began reading black, queer, and female or non-binary authors. I started listening to Code Switch and Strange Fruit, podcasts produced by people of color discussing race and the LGBTQ community. I expanded the films and music and poetry I watched and listened to so that I was experiencing stories and art that were unfamiliar to me.
None of this creates justice out of injustice. But it retrains my ears and eyes to begin seeing and hearing in ways I could not before. As I started listening and seeing differently, I began to realize that all I understood about our reality is much, much smaller than I thought before. I do not understand shopping or driving while black. I do not understand visiting the doctor as a trans-person. I do not understand leading as a woman.
But now I have an opportunity. Now that I am beginning to see and hear differently, I can do a few things.
1. I can speak up when I hear words that do not align with my understanding of justice. “Actually, their pronouns are they/them,” is a simple thing to say, but it takes trained ears and courage to say it.
2. I can step up when a neighbor is experiencing injustice. A friend told me that folks stand in line outside the immigration office in Sioux City every week, often in the bitter cold, without proper protection from the elements. Stepping up looks like collecting hats and mittens and coats and bringing them to people who are our neighbors!
3. I can ask. It is ignorant to think that folks experiencing injustice have no idea what they want or what to do next. Often, folks have a plan but lack the power or resources to do it. Or they have a plan and the resources but could use extra hands or a bridge to a community that they don’t know as many people. The only way to find out is to ask. “Hi! I’m Steve, and I care deeply about you and your community. I want to hear more about how I can participate in the work y’all are already doing.”
This year, let’s not let Dr. King’s birthday slide by with superficial remembrances and quick reposts of quotes on our social media pages. Let us be people who challenge ourselves to lean into the injustice in our community. May we become people who listen and see all of our neighbors. And may we have the courage to act upon what we hear and see.
Friends, we have the power to create communities of love and peace. But we can’t sit still. We have work to do. May we see our neighbors who are doing the work we don’t yet understand as heroes in our midst:
“I wish you had commended the Negro demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer, and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose, facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman of Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride the segregated buses, and responded to one who inquired about her tiredness with ungrammatical profundity, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.’ They will be young high school and college students, young ministers of the gospel, and a host of their elders courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Below is a list of podcasts, writings, movies, & music that may help jump start your journey into hearing and seeing others outside of your own experience. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section of this post on Facebook or Instagram.
1. Code Switch – NPR podcast focused on topics of race
2. Strange Fruit – NPR podcast that discusses the intersection of race and queerness
3. Pod Save the People – Crooked Media podcast featuring some black perspectives on news and culture
4. This Land – a brief series by Rebecca Nagle concerning Native Land and the law of the USA
3. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye
4. Claudia Rankine’s poetic prose “Citizen”
5. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow
6. T. Cooper’s Real Man Adventures
7. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists
8. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time
3. “Do the Right Thing“
4. “Fruitvale Station“
5. “Let the Fire Burn“
6. “The Wire” (TV Series, available on Amazon Prime)
7. “When They See Us” (Netflix Series)
8. “District 9“
1. Black Gold by Nina Simone
2. The Autobiography by Vic Mensa
3. DAMN by Kendrick Lamar
4. Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens
5. The Highwomen by The Highwomen
6. HOPELESSNESS by ANOHNI
7. channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean
8. Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae
9. Cuz I Love You by Lizzo