THE REV. MARTIN Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail reads like the best newspaper editorial ever written - an exhortation to white moderates to push harder for civil rights. King wrote it to appeal to their judicious temperaments. Smuggled out of the jail in pieces, each carried by a different visitor, King’s letter is nonetheless a complete manifesto, showing his awareness of the power and limitations of non-violent protest. Reading it today, one realizes yet again how the path to equality for all Americans would have been longer and more painful without his shrewd, balanced leadership. Like Lincoln, King was a great politician and master of words. He was truly the indispensable man of the civil rights era.
This is worth remembering today, as the new King Memorial in Washington is open to visitors. (The dedication ceremony was postponed because of Hurricane Irene.) Despite the honors that have been accorded King, who was assassinated in 1968, some taint from the FBI’s attempts to discredit him still clings to his memory. By bugging his bedroom and probing the associations of those he worked with, the FBI wasn’t just sniffing around for marital indiscretions and ties to socialists, it was trying to put forward the idea that King was a false man - an image with no substance behind it.
It’s likely that, today, some people still cling to that view of King - that his symbolism as leader of the nonviolent movement for civil rights eclipsed his actual significance: Blacks were bound to rise up eventually, the argument goes, and fair-minded whites were bound to recognize the justice of their claims.
So let’s be clear: Without King, the black uprising would have been far more furious and more painful for African-Americans; even in the darkest days, he reminded his followers of their faith in God and in the American Dream. For white people, especially the timid moderates at whom the Letter from Birmingham Jail was aimed, a more violent uprising would only have deepened the racial wedge. It took King’s rational, but urgent, appeals to make enough whites understand what was at stake.
Like Lincoln, King reminded all Americans that equality was at the core of the nation’s founding, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Lawmaking, by contrast, was an attempt to shake off the prejudices of the moment and more perfectly embody the ideals articulated in the Declaration. Laws could, and should, evolve as society gains wisdom and maturity.
That’s the challenge King bequeathed to future generations of all races, and why he remains an inspiration. It should never have taken so long to acknowledge his place in the national pantheon. But civil rights was an overdue victory, as well.
King would have expected it. He, of all people, believed this country would eventually embrace its true destiny, that equality would one day be the American creed. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’’ King declared in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’’ The opening of the King Memorial is an act of justice that reflects its glory on Americans everywhere.