Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, and the 303rd day of my fourth year of doing tai chi daily. I did four iterations of the form to the four directions, and then I re-read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 16th, 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
MLK’s Letter is not nearly so often quoted as his “I have a dream” speech, delivered on August 28th of that year. But Letter is about White silence in the face of Black oppression, and it seems especially relevant after the year just passed:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
We have watched in the last year while Ferguson blew up in response to the death of Michael Brown. But as much as it was about Michael Brown, it also wasn’t: in part, it was about a systematic effort to make the African-American, mostly-poor community in St. Louis county bear most of the cost of running the local government for the benefit of the White business community.
Which, King says, is all too common. And which the White clergy have never called people to account for, or to object to, or to condemn:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In example after example, tied to the specifics of time and place, King reveals the ways in which the African-American community has been patient, has been careful, has been responsible, has consulted with itself and with God, hoping for clarity.
And it hasn’t worked:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past 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 his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
And this is indeed the ongoing challenge of our time. We — we citizens of this United States — allow our political leadership to gerrymander communities to limit minority voting; to allow them to use police to quell peaceful demonstrations; to raise fees and fines for basic government operations; to apply laws selectively; to allow banks to redline minority districts; to allow police to shoot on sight and get away with it.
And we know it’s unjust. And we don’t do anything about it. Certainly we don’t do enough about it. And we’ve let it corrupt our politics, our legal systems, our conceptions of justice, our ethics, our religion, our science, our understanding of history, our educational institutions, and our mysticism.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I finish my reading, feeling renewed and condemned and honored and reminded, all over again, of why I honor Dr. Martin Luther King as a saint of the Church, and why I regard him as an American prophet.
Tai chi isn’t always about tai chi. Sometimes it’s about being still, and listening to the voices of the past. And sometimes it’s about figuring out how to take action in the face of injustice — softly, carefully, grounded…