the BLOG of stuart mcdonald

A Reflection on King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
January 18, 2010, 1:16 pm
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Since today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I feel that “blogger’s obligation” to write something deep about the day. Instead of writing something new, I’ll share something with you that I wrote a few months back. Nothing uber deep here, just more of a journal entry. We had an assignment for a class to read Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and discuss with paragraph had the biggest impact on us and why. The following is my response:

I decided that the paragraph where he describes his disappointment in the “white moderate” and their participation in the freedom efforts (which I included below for reference). This paragraph stuck out primarily because of the fourth sentence where Dr. King writes about who he, “should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too small in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some like Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden and James Dabbs have written about our struggle in eloquent, prophetic and understanding terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of angry policemen who see them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” They, unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

So the question now becomes: Why did this have such an impact on me?

Because I am that race. I am White. I can’t change that, and honestly, I don’t know that I would. Not to say that I wouldn’t be Black, but rather to say that I realize I have a unique perspective — being White, yet having experiences and knowledge, albeit most of which is secondhand, that I do, that coupled with people’s perception of me, from the outside, could serve to facilitate dialogue and, hopefully, change in a way which otherwise might not be possible. And this is important to me for the reason that Dr. King mentioned earlier in this very letter when he writes that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Even as a White, when I could choose to not be concerned with anything happening outside of my White Privilege bubble, I, knowing what I know, and seeing the problems I see, cannot, in good conscience, stand by and allow the racial travesties of today’s society to continue.

Yes, we have come a long way, but we have by no means arrived. By no means. And perhaps, in my lifetime, or even the next, we may not arrive. That simply means I will leave a legacy for my children and their children to continue. Why bring my children into this, when, not only are they not here, neither is their mother?

Life’s greatest problems have a way of forcing us to think beyond out lifetime to find the real solution. It makes me think about the statement from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech where he says, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The reason this quotes sticks with me is because I want to leave the world a better place than I left it. I want my children to not have to struggle the way others have. I know you may be thinking to yourself, “why is this White guy worried about his children struggling?” So let me explain.

Because a majority of my social circle is African American, and because, not only are a lot of the qualities I look for in a woman found in Black women, but also because I am attracted to women of color (equally, if not a bit more than White women), there is a high probability that my wife could be Black. This would make our children mixed, and history and society has shown us that more often than not, mixed children tend to associate more with the minority race. Obviously there are excepts and the world, with the percentage of interracial children on the rise, is overall becoming a more mixed, and accepting place, yet there are still those who have a prejudiced mindset who wish we could go back to the days of segregation.

Even if my children have both white parents, the statement still very much applies. Are White children not judged by the color of their skin too? Granted, the judgement is normally one of privilege and superiority more than it is one of inferiority and minority, but it is judgement nonetheless, is it not? They’re still judged about what they do and don’t know, the experiences they’re perceived to have had or have missed out on.

I’ve seen this first hand as a White who is around a lot of Black folks; I get it all the time. People look and wonder to themselves about why I would associate with Black people. Or perhaps I’m on a date, out to dinner, or just at the movies with a young lady who is Black, the same thing happens — they just look and I can only imagine what goes on in their minds.

I wish that this kind of judgement and thought pattern didn’t have to exist, but especially in the South, it is continually prevalent, and based primarily on the history and heritage from which we’ve come. The mindset is inherited. And it’s a mindset that I don’t wish for my children, whether they’re White or mixed, to inherit from me or my wife.

At the end of my life, after I’ve accomplished what God has called me to do, I would be incredibly privileged and honored be mentioned alongside the likes of Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, and James Dabbs. Men who, I honestly know little about at this point, yet, because Dr. King mentioned them as Whites involved in the cause, I yearn to learn more about.

I pray that I can find a way make an impact on, not only this generation, but future ones to come and that I can, as Dr. King said, “ recogniz[e] the urgency of the moment and sens[e] the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation,” or the other social ills of today’s society. That seems like a mighty thing to seek to accomplish, and rightfully so.

If we’re going to strive, why not at least strive for something worthwhile, even if it seems insurmountable? Because perhaps, while it may seem insurmountable it’s not. Not if we can see the value in freedom and equality for all. If we see the value in working together, for a common goal — freedom. “And,” in the unforgettable words of Dr. King, “when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’


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