This is one of the few national holidays that I care deeply about. At the same time I feel uneasy about a holiday that celebrates a man and a cause that as a nation we have not fully come to terms with. Not only do we resist talking seriously about race in this country, but when we do we don’t really know how to go about it. Perhaps the public commemoration of King is in part a tactic for not having to engage in more serious reflection. We can sit back and listen once again to his 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial and pretend that the problem of racism is in the past. As classes resume tomorrow I plan to read a excerpt from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is in my mind one of the clearest statements of the need for racial justice. This is of course the letter King wrote in response to local clergymen who counseled patience in the face of white resistance. That King had to justify his tactics to clergymen reflects the pervasiveness of white racism and the failure to understand the day-to-day experiences of brutality and humiliation. Here is the section that I will read:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.