It was fifty years ago that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and I have posted about it before. It is, as I’ve said on many occasions, something that inspires me when I am feeling quite the coward.
There is very little in my life that requires absurd amounts of courage. In fact it is all quite normal and humdrum. I have two boys that I need to raise to become men. If I screw it up they could become total douchebags or just general horrible guys to date or marry or have at your workplace or terrible bosses. I mean, this is a daunting task but is parenting a child really an act of bravery? It’s just what human beings do. You have sex (or in my case, you don’t) and then voila, nine or so months later you have other humans that are entrusted into your care.
(We don’t think of this being a parent things as an act of courage, but it should be considered such. Will your boys and girls be as brave as MLK? Will they be as brave as you? Will you show them your strength of will so they will know what it looks like? Let me ask you this – are you not afraid of what might happen if you don’t? I am. Always. Afraid of what could be if I don’t do it.)
I have a job. Some call it a career. I defend people accused of crimes. Some are guilty, some are not. I don’t know the difference on a regular basis. There is simply no time to contend with those details. And yes, to me they are nothing more than details. The defense is what matters. How much intestinal fortitude does it take to do this work? I am scared a lot of the time. But what is this fear? Of what? Of getting it wrong. Of screwing up. Of losing. And if I lose there is just so much at stake.
(But at the end of the day is it not just a job? Don’t I just move on, go on to the next case, the next client. I get do-overs all the time. But not with that client. Not with that person. I need to be strong. I need to push through. If I don’t do it, then who will? For him. For that person over there. Who?)
I have friends who have problems. Some big, some small. This life is filled with chaos and complexities and we navigate our way through sometimes with a GPS as faulty as the new apple maps. Our way is not always as clearly defined as we might like and we stray and fall and meander back and forth. Sort of like this post, which isn’t dissimilar from others where I simply can’t seem to get to the point.
But there is a point, and it is about MLK and it is about Birmingam
In January of 1963, Governor George Wallace (whom I’ve heard tell was a great politician) gave his inaugural address:
I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
Can you imagine? You are black. You live in the South and you are told that forever more, as long as these people are in power, you are less than fully human. So, what do you do?
Of course, you go to Alabama.
You go with MLK.
King was arrested on Good Friday, 1963, during one of the non-violent protests. They held him in isolation. A group of white clergymen said King should not have protested, said he should not have gotten arrested. Said he and other blacks should be patient. Patient.
But they could not. How much longer? How long is too long? Who would tell them but the white folks in charge. No more waiting.
I went to the American History museum last week. They have a lunch counter there where these sit-ins were held. A lovely young black woman dressed in lunch counter gear was heading up a demonstration. She had four white volunteers sit at the counter and us, the crowd, got in real close. She told us to stare, then mock.
And she said focus. Focus. Can you stay calm? Can you stay focused?
Is your goal worth sitting here and enduring this?
I sometimes wonder at the comparison of what I do and how I live to that of the blacks protesting segregation during that awful time. Is it fair? After all, my clients are accused of committing crimes and the protesters were just ordinary black people. But then I remember that at the time, blacks weren’t just people like me and you and you white guy over there. They were all criminals. And they were fighting for justice. Which the white guys thought they were already giving them.
Governor Wallace ultimately changed his position on segregation. He said it was wrong of him to stand in front of the schoolhouse doors preventing blacks from entering. And you know, that’s a good thing. But he fought long and hard to continue the unjust and broken system in the South.
That is, in fact, what we do now. All of us who clamor for longer sentences, more laws, a tougher stance on X, Y, and Z thing. We want to go on, throw the gauntlet down. Not acknowledge that this system is still racist. It is broken. It does not work and does not accomplish what we want to accomplish.
MLK said this. He said
We know through painful experience that freedom in never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. . . For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists
I can’t believe that there aren’t people there, who like George Wallace, can have an awakening and realize that our criminal justice system in its current fashion is unworkable. We must stop taking flesh and putting it behind bars, taking it out again, rinse repeat. We must be extremists for justice and for real change.
Focus. Focus. The goal is worth it.