For many years the text of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was not easy to find online because of copyright restrictions. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. Today is a good day for a re-read:
I am resisting the urge to pontificate about the appalling racism which continues, the suppression of the honest teaching of America’s racist history, the steady drone of racist dog whistles in political campaigns, the misrepresentation of terms like CRT and BLM, and the refusals to admit that racism remains an enormous problem. And yes, MLK was a human being with flaws—as all human beings are flawed. But I am thankful that he put his thoughts to paper in this important document which began as scribblings in the margins of a newspaper he had in his jail cell and which was smuggled out with the help of his lawyer.
Not to mention the whitewashing of civil rights figures like MLK himself, presenting him as basically inoffensive to the existing system, and even using quotes out of context to justify regressive, racist policies.
As someone who watched the civil right movement timeline get recorded on TV and in newspapers in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I guess I take the brutal history for granted and assume that everybody understands the basic facts. Thus, it scares me to hear that later generations may not understand just how much contempt there was for MLK—and that many will work hard to deliberately misrepresent it.
Yes, MLK had countless enemies, including many within the African-American community and within the civil rights movement. This was impossible to miss at the time.
Just came across this political cartoon of MLK from the 60s, and it reminded me of this discussion. It’s interesting, and disappointing, to see that the same type of propaganda was used against MLK and the civil rights movement of the 60s as is being used today against the modern (BLM) civil rights movement.
Edit: In case anyone’s wondering what the text in the margins says: “How can you, a minister of the gospel of Christ, be such a deceitful hypocrite? You’re not fooling anyone but yourself in your nauseating talk about non-violence. You demand a program to overcome poverty and ‘flow in’ untold amounts in your high living and running all over the globe to feed your own egotism.”
That cartoon gives me nauseating flashbacks to the early 1960’s. Among them are my memories of sitting in the barber chair while the racist patrons waiting their turn (led by the barber himself) bloviated on the various alleged errors, hypocrisies, and “injustices” of the civil rights movement.
What is most seared into my brain is the barber casually lecturing the men of his “court” (as he gave me the “buzz cut” which was the standard fashion of that era) on how, “You really can’t blame the [N-word in the plural goes here] for being so easily misled. After all, for centuries they were bred for brawn, not for brains.” The feigned “compassion” was sickening, even for a nine-year-old. This was followed by another deep inhalation from his third pack of Pall Mall cigarettes of that day. (Of course, this was before filtered cigarettes were common. That unventilated barber shop was filled with a smoke fog thicker than a middle-of-the-night scene from an old 1940’s Jack the Ripper movie. I remember entertaining myself watching the swirling “smoke art” as convection currents wafted the fowl smelling pollutants around the room.)
Oddly enough, various of the now timeless Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post and LOOK Magazine covers positively depicting the civil rights movement of the 1960’s were scattered among the stacks of Reader’s Digest, Superman and Archie Comics, and Grit Newspaper editions on the shelves of that barber shop’s waiting area. I wondered why that very racist barber allowed them in his place of business—but I eventually concluded that he was simply oblivious to them. I doubt that he gave them any serious thought or ever pondered their meaning. His brain was enveloped in a hard-as-stone racist shell.
It makes me sick when I hear far too many of my evangelical friends speak warmly of “the good ol’ days” of the 1950’s and 1960’s “when America was a godly nation.” Rubbish. Yes, there were plenty of good people back then just as there are now. But the nation was saturated with plenty of false piety and monstrous racism which barely hesitated to maim and kill—and allegedly in the name of “law and order” and “Christian values.” Rubbish again.
By the way, that barbershop was not in the Deep South. It was in a little Mayberry-like town in a typical agricultural county of northern Indiana.
I rarely use the word evangelical to describe myself in recent years because the original reference to the “good news” of the teachings of Jesus Christ have been replaced in most people’s minds (understandably) by a purely political label. Indeed, I’ve seen surveys where people define an “evangelical” as “someone who supports gun rights”, “denies climate change”, and “claims pervasive racism no longer exists in the USA.” Doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.