We each hold a key in this world, a key to prosperity, freedom, and happiness. Martin Luther King Jr. used his key as a racial healer, a soldier in the fight for social justice, equality and peace in dignity. The lessons he has taught us are numerous and bear personal significance to many of us. In commemorating his birthday, I propose to revisit some of his writings, focusing particularly on his letter from Birmingham jail to show why they relate to all of us in a personal way. While reading Dr. King’s letter, I felt transported to this very sad episode of American history; a time that he describes so vividly and eloquently; a time during which emotions ran high and America was virtually on the verge of a second civil war, a collision course.
Indeed, the “letter from Birmingham jail” is a testimony of the profound bitterness, frustration and humiliation, which irreversibly shaped the course of Dr. King’s life. It is a plea for the recognition of the equal humanity of every man, a cry of freedom coming from the deep troubled soul of a man who happened to be black. While reading this letter, I felt as if I knew Dr. King in a personal way. Certainly, not as did others like Andrew Young or Jesse Jackson, but in my own way I too have a personal relationship with Dr. King. I find my personal relationship with Martin Luther King to be the more tangible when I read his speeches and find myself between the lines, paralyzed and impotent, unable to stop neither the flow of his words nor the course of time.
Martin Luther King was a preacher, a true man of God, one who bluntly refused to be a passive bystander to the erosion of divine values instilled in every man. Although King’s approach is mostly vehicled by a natural law perspective, his analysis of the social problems includes key elements of the divine law. In fact, he believed that God created man with certain inalienable rights such as the right to life, to be free, and the pursuit of happiness. To prevent man from enjoying these rights is against divine precepts. While King was seduced by the principles of civil disobedience and non-violence, his religious principles were always at the forefront of his political philosophy. King also believed in the fundamental goodness of man, on his inclination toward good. He says that every human life is a reflex of divinity and every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man. For that, he sought to bring man closer to his Godly image by transcending racial, religious, and political barriers. At the end, man would be equal, under the law as he is under God. Like Jean Jacques Rousseau, King believed:
“Man is born good and pure, but society corrupts him.”
Like Gandhi, he advocated civil disobedience and non-violence to fight injustice and arrive at a new social contract. He saw that the black minority was not part of the American social contract because they were not allowed to participate in its elaboration. Having been brought from Africa by force, kept in a state of semi-bestiality, and alienated from the political process, the black minority was condemned to live in exile in his new home, unless he took some affirmative steps to push toward the elaboration of a new social contract. King believed, and rightly so, that the minority had a right and a responsibility to disobey laws which were fundamentally unjust. He makes a natural law argument when he says that one has a moral responsibility to obey just laws; conversely, an equal responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Indeed, it was King’s respect for the law, which led him to disobey the law. He felt that all remedies had been exhausted and that non-violent protests such as sit-ins, boycotts, and non-cooperation, were the only way for the minority to express its frustration and discontent with the system. He defines an unjust law as one imposed on the minority and in the legislating of which it took no part.
King grew up in the old south, more precisely in Alabama, a state sweltering in the heat of injustice, in the heat of oppression. It is exactly that which led him to march down the shameless streets of Birmingham, and it was the reason behind his incarceration. However, no jail was secure enough to stop this man from dreaming the same dreams and hoping the same hopes. In the letter from Birmingham jail, Dr. King describes how bitter and outraged he was by the conditions to which the Negro living in America was reduced. A letter which is no less than the dissection of the crippled existence of the Negro, the so-called African American, tied to poverty in a country whose prosperity was seemingly growing.
Martin Luther King willingly deprived himself of the security of a material life to adopt that of a nomad. Going from place to place, ringing the bells of freedom, singing the songs of brotherhood, and calling for the coming together of people of all religion, color, race, and ethnicity. He wanted to depose the first brick in the building of a new American society; a society in which people would not be judged by race, color, and religion, but by their contribution to the common good.
“I have a dream this day! I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
How can my relationship with Dr. King not become the more personal, when I, a father, am reading the “letter from Birmingham jail”, and in the back of my mind, the voice of that little girl (like my little girl Regianie) asking her daddy why she could not go to the park, as if the question was addressed to me, as if she were my own.
How can my relationship with Dr. King not grow even deeper when I look in my past, and find myself engaging in exactly the same kind of nonviolent protest advocated by him? In fact, I am not only an admirer of Dr. King’s writings, but also a student of his teachings. Having migrated to the U.S. from a country (Haiti) racked by political and social turbulence; a country where only less than 5% of the population controls the scarce national resources, where food and schools are privileges afforded to the very lucky, where human rights and respect for human life are ideals without much following, I am able to understand the new social contract he advocates. Furthermore, my relationship with Dr. King became the more imposing when I realized that the new social contract he was advocating did not confine itself to the four corners of America, but embraced the cause of man kind wherever he was oppressed. Indeed, King never negotiated the power of his words or the comfort of his presence wherever they could have made a difference. His call for human rights and social justice was of universal proportion, and his speeches best illustrate this when he says:
“The denial of human rights anywhere is a threat to the affirmation of human rights everywhere.”
In fact, Dr. King’s struggle for human rights also embraced the politically oppressed living in foreign nations. He clearly understood that the struggle for freedom of the black man in America was inextricably interwoven with the universal struggle of all people, to be free from discrimination and oppression. My relationship with Martin Luther King becomes the more apparent when as a young idealist, who believes in the right of all to a decent standard of living regardless of race, political ideology, social status etc., I find serenity, comfort and solidarity and his words. I, like Dr. King, am not a revolutionary. I do not advocate a bloodthirsty war to change things in Haiti. I, too, do not believe in the notion that you deal with one evil by substituting another. It has always been clear to me that taking certain privileges away from the elite to give them to another group can only create a new elite, without making any fundamental changes in the Haitian social contract. Just as King understood that justice for blacks did not mean injustice for whites and others.
“I have a dream that one day, sons of former slave and sons of former slave owners will sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
The table of brotherhood he talks about is the starting point of the new social contract. Because of his hrefusal to fight discrimination with more discrimination, Dr. King was particularly adamant when it came to taking a stand against those of his race for expressing some views, which seemed discriminatory or anti-Semitic. His remarks to comments made by other black leaders such as Malcolm X (a member of the Nation of Islam) were clear and unequivocal.
“We cannot substitute one tyranny for another, and for the black man to be struggling for justice and then turn around and be anti-Semitic is not only a very irrational course, but it is a very immoral course.”
At the end, we all have a personal relationship with Martin Luther king in some way, whether we recognize it or not, for what he lived and died for was to make this a better world for all of us, irrespective of race, color, religion, or social status. He taught us in tangible ways that non-violent protest is the only way to open the doors to a constructive dialogue, and from that dialogue would ensue reconciliation with our adversaries. “We may not simply sit and allow ourselves to become the passive bystander of the killing and murdering of our people. Repeatedly, we must reaffirm our right to be free” as Dr. King so eloquently puts it in his letter from Birmingham jail. Also, borrowing the words of Reinhold Neibhur: “freedom is never freely given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”