I was re-reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and I had to pause to take a deep breath a time or two. Not because his letter was a tear jerker – it’s not. It’s truth spoken to power and is not at all sentimental. The ideas from his letter that force me to pause to ponder the past, and America as it once was, are his overall commitment to change and his point of view as a dad. Dr. King’s willingness and drive to do what was just is astounding to this day. Even in the light of the Obama presidency it is important to not forget how we got to where we are, what it means, and how to continue forward. We also can’t forget the kind of leadership that it takes to change the world. And we certainly can’t forget that one man or woman, with a lot of help from his friends, can and will be a catalyst for change if their principles are aligned with a purpose.
In the second month of 2010 I am getting anxious about being a provider and a father. I wonder if decisions I have made that at the time seemed correct will help or hurt my family in the future. I wonder if I am still as resilient as I was when I was a young man living in Biggie’s Brooklyn. I wonder if I can be the man that I aspire to be when there always seems to be a new road block to traverse or another cynic to prove wrong. Then I read King and I know I can as long as I maintain my focus and accept that meaningful change, of self or the world, takes time. I don’t have to explain to my six-year-old that he can’t go to “Funtown” because he’s black, that is not a source of anxiety for me because of the work of my ancestors. But I do have to explain to him that in order to maintain progress he must do his part, understand his history, and move forward with the mind and heart of a leader. I’m not sure what kind of father I would have been 47 years ago, but I am lucky enough to be able to draw inspiration from fathers of that time and know that there is no excuse for me to not be the father and man I desire to be.
The following is an excerpt from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written April 16, 1963, that I have read several times and I hope you will take a moment to read as well. It’s Black History Month after all!
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”