By JONATHAN RIEDER Published: April 15, 2013
CHRIS ROCK caused a stir last Fourth of July when he tweeted, “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.” Mr. Rock’s tweet may not have topped the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s “God damn America” sermon, but both sentiments are of a piece, and both seem a far cry from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeal to the American dream and his embrace of “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
But this view of King as an ardent proponent of American exceptionalism fails to capture a significant part of his thinking, a set of ideas embodied in one of his most famous works, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” What we remember today as a stirring piece about freedom and justice was also a furious reading of American history and an equally indignant attitude toward King’s white contemporaries.
Arrested on April 12, 1963, during an epic struggle to desegregate Birmingham, Ala., King was in jail when he read the statement of eight white moderate clergymen who criticized the demonstrations as “untimely,” branded King “extreme” and chided the protesters for precipitating violence.
King’s letter, written on scraps of paper smuggled out of the jail and first made public on April 16, 1963, began as irate jottings of rebuttal. In its final form, though, the indignation was not evident in every sentence: the opening words, “My dear fellow clergymen,” brimmed with precious gentility.
Later, King offered reasoned justifications for civil disobedience and rarefied nods to the theologians Martin Buber and Paul Tillich. And he evoked universalism with the proclamation, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Yet black anger, not fancy philosophy, was the driving force behind the letter. You don’t have to be a literary critic to sense the cold fury: “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.”
In a line worthy of Malcolm X decrying white “tricknology,” King savaged what he saw as white mendacity: “This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ” His target was not the Ku Klux Klan, but a vast majority of “moderate” Americans, including the Kennedy administration, who had urged him to postpone the protests. Presumably, they meant never, too.
Hardly naïve about the power of moral appeal to stir the white conscience, King flirted with the idea that whites were virtually incapable of empathizing with the black plight. “I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans or passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.”
In a mass meeting just days after getting out of jail, he depicted blacks as alone in an indifferent nation: “Don’t you ever think that anything is going to be given to us in this struggle.”
Toward the end of the letter, King wrote, “I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham.” Where did he find such certainty? Ultimately, it was rooted in his belief, stated elsewhere, that “the Lord will make a way out of no way” and “there is a balm in Gilead.” Yet in his letter King offered none of this. It was as if he viewed the white ministers as unworthy of spiritual sharing. (In a mass meeting a few weeks later, he would gibe, “They are all pitiful.”)
Nor did King draw confidence from the idea that America was destined for democracy. While he did mention that “we will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham … because the goal of America is freedom,” this is a brief aside and not his central point. Rather, King found optimism in his deep faith in black people. At its core, the “Letter” was a proclamation of black self-sufficiency.
King began his paean to black majesty with the line “abused and scorned though we may be,” a reference to the slavery-era spiritual “’Buked and Scorned,” which evokes the slaves’ suffering and their conviction that “Jesus died to set me free.”
It was a touchstone for King, a link to his revered forebears, and one he referenced repeatedly. “Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the mighty words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here.”
Reading those lines on paper barely hints at the force of those stanzas as King usually spoke them: a defiant assertion of a black right to belong that rested on something more primal than, and prior to, the nation’s official documents and civic heroes.
In the “Letter,” King immediately sidled from the “we were here” refrain into another of his favorite passages of ancestor worship: “For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation. And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.”
It is a mistake, then, to make too much of King’s occasional references to the American dream. He read American history in the light of the black experience of it. The labor of a slave was not the labor of a lonely individual who sought the pristine state of American nature, worked the land and acquired property. The story of the slaves was of a people in “exile,” King said, whose skin color and forced labor made for a different kind of “exceptionalism”: They were other people’s property, the instruments of somebody else’s dream.
King continued with this theme to the end of his life. “They kept us in slavery 244 years in this country, and they said they freed us from slavery,” King recalled in a 1968 speech, shortly before he was killed, “but they didn’t give us any land … And they haven’t given us anything! After making our foreparents work and labor for 244 years — for nothing! Didn’t pay ’em a cent.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. That’s a beautiful creed,” King told his crowd. It is easy to read such sentences in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and other works by King and leave it at that. But it is vital to read what he said next: “America has never lived up to it.”