A couple of years ago, I decided to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on the MLK Day, as I have the day off from work. The federal holiday was intended to be a day or service, but perhaps we can at least start with learning about the man and his beliefs through his most famous letter. I can’t imagine that anyone could read this letter and not come away changed. It is truly one of the finest writings I’ve ever read.
It is a rather long letter (as he even admits to near in its closing). So, if you prefer to spare the hour with a reading, then this video has you covered. The first four minutes are a reading of the letter by a group of clergymen that prompted King’s response. This embedded video starts after that.
I felt compelled to share this as during our parent’s Sunday school class yesterday, one person raised the question “Why does this person even have a holiday? He wasn’t the only civil rights leader.” I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was raising the question in good faith (the talk immediately changed to a slightly different subject, as these group conversations often do). He stated that his children and others had asked it, and I believe he was saying this so he could justify that the MLK Day holiday was because Martin Luther King Jr was a great American and civil rights leader.
That is true, and even in his brief lifetime (I’m now two years older than he was when he was killed), he became a symbol for a movement much greater than himself1. He was a brilliant and courageous leader who believed in the best of the Christian church and of America. This letter is strong evidence of these things. So the holiday isn’t just a memorial to his service, but I believe to all of what he represented. Its to remind us of the ability of people in this nation to be able to move mountains. Its to remind us that complacency and the desire to maintain order is not an American virtue, but the antithesis of what America was founded on. America can always be a better place for all and no one else is going to come do that hard work for us. Some of us will have to give up some privilege. Some of us will lose time and money to the work. Some people have given so much more, as King risked and ultimate lost his life in doing his work.
So that’s why we have a holiday. Not because of what Kind did, or at least not entirely because of it. Also, to remind us of what we have left to do. We have to do it not because we owe it to King’s memory, but because we owe it to every last American. It’s precisely what it means to be American.