The Distance

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is an honored document of history.

by Tom Gordon

Mayor William Bell, Bernice King and Governor Robert Bentley unveil a historical marker commemorating the 50 year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmngham Jail”

Historical memory can be a touchy thing.

I saw an in–your–face example of just how touchy 21 springs ago when, as a Birmingham News reporter, I found myself between two boisterous groups on opposite sides of College Street in Auburn.

The occasion was the Kappa Alpha Fraternity’s Old South weekend at the university, during which the Confederate battle flag was on display. On one side of the street were a large group of white students, many holding small or large battle flags. To them, the banner represented a proud heritage. On the other side was a smaller, integrated group of faculty and students, including some black AU football players. To them, that flag represented an evil, slave-owning empire.

I spent a lot of time going back and forth between the two groups. It took less than five seconds to go from one side of the street to the other.

But the distance between the groups’ diametrically opposed views might as well have been five miles.

We still have a lot of “distances” in our city, state and country.  But I felt none last April 16, when a ceremony was held at the site of the old city jail to unveil a historical monument to an open letter Martin Luther King wrote 50 years earlier while he was in a cell in that facility. The letter was King’s reply to some Birmingham clergymen who had been critical of the demonstrations that King had been leading. They said negotiations among local leaders and cases filed in court, “not in the streets,” were the way to change the city’s segregated status quo.

King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” became what Samford University history professor Jonathan Bass calls “the most important written document of the civil rights era.” Its power still resounds.  “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights,” one segment states. “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”

The 50th anniversary ceremony had many memorable moments. You can watch them on C-Span. There, you will see not only the unveiling of the historical marker, but who was doing it: Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter, Bernice, and  Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.

“Fifty years ago, the governor of this state didn’t want Martin Luther King Jr. here,” Bernice King said before the unveiling. “He didn’t welcome him here. But today, as his offspring, I’m his redemption because Gov. Bentley welcomed me to the state of Alabama and Birmingham, Alabama.”

Whether you are native–born or a newcomer, you know Birmingham and Alabama are still haunted by many symbolic gestures of defiance and brutality from the civil rights era. That’s why you may find it comforting to see symbolic gestures that send a positive message. That’s the feeling I took from both Bentley’s presence at the unveiling ceremony and from what he had to say.

The governor  seemed to be anything but a reluctant participant. His own applause was lengthy and heartfelt after he and King and removed the Alabama state flag that covered the historical marker.  Earlier, he had noted that he had read King’s letter the night before.

“Throughout this year, we want to welcome people to Birmingham to see our history and to better understand the fight for civil rights,” he also said. “We want younger generations to undertand that history and we also want them to recognize the bravery and the courage of people like Dr. King … We are better and stronger today because of the courage of Dr. King. We remain inspired by his words, by his actions and his legacy.”

Those words may not be as eloquent as those Martin Luther King penned 50 years earlier, but they now are part of the historical record.

And, I might add, a very positive part.

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