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Eyes of the Prize
2006-01-16 05:34
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Just a quick time out here to honor today's holiday. Last week, Taylor Branch's third, and final installment of his ambitious Martin Luther King, Jr biography was released. "At Canaan's Edge" follows the highly acclaimed "Parting of the Waters" and "Pillar of Fire" to make up probably the most comprehensive study of King's life to date ("Bearing the Cross" by David Garrow is another excellent study of MLK too). Branch is an outstanding writer and I'm sure his new book is fascinating.

Here is an excerpt of King's celebrated "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," dated April 16, 1963.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

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 stiff 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 dark 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 no 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.

Comments
2006-01-16 07:11:31
1.   Simone
Nice tribute to Dr. King, Alex. I've never read Taylor Branch's work on Dr. King. I'll put these books on my extremely long list of books that I hope to get around to reading one day.
2006-01-16 07:14:46
2.   Howie
Alex,

Great post! Thanks for reminding us about a truly great man and a time that seems so long ago, but was only 40 years back.

And also for reminding us that this is a holiday, even for those of us stuck at work because our company isn't progressive enough to give us the day off.

2006-01-16 08:42:10
3.   Sliced Bread
Thanks for posting King's "Letter From A Birmingham Jail." It's been a long time since I read these words, and they still sting, and force me to subconsciously clench my fists.

The antidote to the despair and frustration described by King, of course, is music, which is a popular subject in this Bronx Banter forum.

I remember one MLK Jr. Day, about 10 years ago, I happened to put on "Yellow Moon" by the Nevilles. I wasn't thinking about King or anything heavy, I think I just wanted to hear the spooky funky title track, which I think is the opening track. Then, the album and the history took over: "Sister Rosa," Dylan's "With God On Our Side," the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," and Aaron's hauntingly sublime cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (which could literally knock you to your knees). I don't know of a greater musical expression of King's message than the Neville's "Yellow Moon." If there is, please advise.

2006-01-16 12:04:59
4.   joejoejoe
Sidenote - Taylor Branch cowrote Bill Russell's memoirs "Second Wind". It has great detail about race in the 50s with Russell growing up in the South as a child and later in San Francisco. The book predates Taylor Branch's three part history of the King years but shows off his understanding and (co)writing on the topic of social justice. And Russell is a fascinating figure. Highly recommended if you can find a copy.
2006-01-16 18:55:35
5.   brockdc
As a high school teacher, I had my students read and discuss Dr. King's "Letter..." this past week. It hurts me to say this, but for many kids today - yes, even kids of color - Dr. King's words fall flat and hollow. I don't exactly know why, as the same words had spurred me to indignation and fury as a teenager some years ago.

Is it that "the promise," as Malcolm X once stated, has yet to be paid? Is it youthful dispassion coupled with the illusory belief that possession of material goods is tantamount to political, social, and religious freedom? Possible a combination of the above factors in addition to many more that I have yet to consider.

2006-01-17 07:58:33
6.   The Mick 536
Urge you all to read "Great Day at Trickem Fork." Written by the greatest journalist/sportswriter of all time, sorry Alex, though you have some time to catch up, Bill Heinz, it created a picture of the civil rights movement nobody had seen. Heinz saw the moment like no one else.

Thanks Alex for making us think about why we celebrate the day and why we keep the dream alive.A little depression to keep the agression.

Luckily, we don't yet have a food for the day or the promise of cheaper sheets. We could have some new, on the point, songs, as Sliced Bread noted. How about some Curtis Mayfield-Move On Up, People Get Ready, Keep On Pushing?

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