While President Trump chose the same day that he made obviously racist remarks about what kind of immigrants are welcome in the U.S. to praise slain Civil Right leader Martin Luther King, Jr. as a “great American hero,” his actions speak louder than his words.
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As we near the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination later this year, however, it is King’s words that continue to speak the truth to power about the ongoing pain of racism.
Among the most powerful of King’s words that have passed down to us is his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963, after he had been put in solitary confinement for the crime of leading a public demonstration, republished today by The Washington Post.
At a time when Trump’s Justice Department is taking actions that invite police to be even more violent toward minorities, when the jails still overflow with African American prisoners in numbers way beyond their percentage of the population, and Trump continues to intensify his campaign again immigration by people of color and different religions while welcoming more white Christians to America, Dr. King’s words take on special meaning.
His letter was a reaction to an ad in an Alabama newspaper placed by a group of white Christian pastors shortly after his arrest charging King’s protests were “unwise and untimely.”
That set off King, who had to find scraps of old newspaper, bits of tablet paper and whatever else he could get to put down his thoughts about why so-called “moderates” always think it is not the right time when in reality there is no better time.
His message – smuggled out of the jail – now seems like a powerful response to the phony efforts by Trump to deny he is a racist, even after he praised white supremacists in Charlottesville and put a blatant racist, Jeff Sessions, in charge of his Justice Department.
“Frankly,” wrote Dr. King, “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.”
King wrote that when his critics say “wait,” what they really meant was “never.”
“We must come to see…that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights,” wrote Dr. King, adding that “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 seen vicious mobs lynch your mother and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim,” added Dr. King, “when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see a vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
As bad as the openly racist are, King made clear in his letter that he also found great disappointment with the “white moderate” who is “more devoted to ‘order’ than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which the presence of justice; who constantly say ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'”
“Shallow understanding from people of good will,” lamented Dr. King, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
So to those like Trump who pretend they want equality for all, Dr. King’s words are clear. It is one thing to say you want it, but another to refuse to allow it to happen “now,” when you really mean it will “never” be convenient.
Ten years ago, at the request of Dr. King’s widow, the Congress reset the purpose of MLK Day to be one not just of celebration but also one of service – a day for actions that show compassion and help express the need for equality.
No wonder Trump is taking it as a day to play golf, again, because, in reality, our president has no idea what the King holiday is all about. It is just an occasion for Trump to pretend to be what he is not, a person who believes in diversity and cares about others.
Martin Luther King would have been 89-years-old today if he had lived. He was 39-years-old when he was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
His message, however, lives on for those – unlike Trump – willing to listen.