Black History and White Me! The Heart of Dr. Martin Luther King
(Mike DePung — Feb. 1, 2018)
I intend to spend this month responding to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” Why? One reason is it is Black History Month, but beyond that, I find the words of Dr. King contain his essence and energy, energy which allows me to feel that kindred Fellowship of the Heart.
Let me make this clear now, and I will not mention it again. I am a white male, definitely a privileged category of human being in America. I do not deserve it, nor do I believe anyone does. To this end, I will address Dr. King’s work and sit down at “the table of brotherhood” he refers to in his great “I Have a Dream” speech, which I listened to this morning. I will add that right now I can only encourage you to read Dr. King’s letter. I am inclined to write this and then record myself reading it and the letter. I would do this incrementally each day until I have moved through it. I’m sure if I do that, I will have extra things to say beyond what I write. Let me be honest here: I am pretty much dismayed by the thought of creating a video, leaving myself open to criticism, and possibly causing greater divisions, even in my limited sphere of influence. If I can only establish the mindset of Dr. King, though, I should be okay.
To begin, I would recommend you read the letter from the following website, because it is a photocopy of the actual one. There’s something about seeing it the way he typed it. I love it: http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf . This letter is as relevant today as in 1963, not to mention that it holds the same transformative possibilities.
In the heading, Dr. King addresses seven white clergymen. I looked up short histories of each, but I’m not presenting a history lesson here. What I will say is at one point in my life, my name could have been lumped with theirs. For a couple years, I did serve in a more formal pastoral capacity, and informally for many more. Even then, I cared about justice and inequality, but it was in a narrow, conservative, and constrictive way, a way that benefitted me. I wonder how many people realize their definition of justice, law, and appropriate civil and social behavior have been dictated to them by the holders of power and assumers of superiority. I didn’t always; that’s certain.
Why did these seven clergymen write an open letter that urged whites and African Americans in their congregations and the public at large to disassociate themselves from King as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and his efforts in nonviolent, public demonstrations? They had reasons that sounded rational, but they were only rationales of Ego: “We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense” (http://www.massresistance.org/docs/gen/09a/mlk_day/statement.html) . Why is that Ego? Because their definition of “law and order” was based on rules intended to keep others enslaved, imprisoned, and inconsequential so that the protests, the demonstrations, would not develop into reform or revolution, which may threaten or shake their undisturbed, unmolested positions of superiority. “Our way is the best way. It makes sense when you look at it from our point of view. We don’t want those not like us to have the same privileges and advantages.” Such possible words represent the underlying Ego tones of superiority and desire to isolate and elevate themselves.
In later years, a number of these seven clergymen did, indeed, take bolder stands against racial prejudice and injustice. In fact, Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter would not give his approval to start a new school unless it was integrated, and that was nine years before Birmingham. Why would he sign such a letter as he did in 1963? He still wanted to define, along with the others, their power base and to ensure it would remain intact; they wanted to control by being the benevolent rulers of justice. They, and many, many people today, do not understand that at a subconscious, Ego level, they would be okay if they dictated the terms of law, order, and justice and then could judge if others’ behaviors were acceptable or not. Their “common sense” was only sense for the white power base, never for minorities, in general.
In any case, Dr. King addresses them as “My dear Fellow Clergymen.” He radiates respect and sincerity in showing he considers them as one with himself. Then, as he launches into the body of his letter, he acknowledges he is under constant criticism every day. Why was that so, and is that so today for those seeking civil and social justice? People criticize when they feel threatened, and when that’s the case, rational-sounding assaults — think about the arguments a large faction is currently spouting about immigrants — can alleviate their fears by tearing others down. Why are folks so afraid and hateful in response to their own Ego fears?
Dr. King, though, recognizes this and attempts to set their fears at ease by using the words from their own letter to analyze, logically and lovingly. His laser-sharp focus in the face of fear and pressure, from those who should have been sympathetic, keeps him from distraction or caving in to Ego demands. In fact, he takes the time to show them that he isn’t only going to present his arguments, but he is considering their emotional state: “But since I feel that you are men of genuine goodwill and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in patient and reasonable terms.” His loving patience reveals his Heart-energy and drives him on in exposing darkness by shedding light; he shows he values them enough to do so.
Certainly, this principle would be effective in today’s climate in America where questions of equality, justice, and civil rights continue to demonstrate that the underlying Ego-drive continues, and the only safeguard to the rights of people to live Heart-truth resides in Heart-driven legislation, administration, and justice in all branches of the government. This comes first, before jobs, economy, being the greatest, or any other foolish priorities over the freedom and justice due all.