Monday, as we honor the memory, mission and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought it appropriate to build upon the previous Ohio Action Circle entry from David, the title of which is of course a reference to MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Bernard’s letter, written from Morrow County Jail in Central Ohio, has much in common with the Birmingham letter, but one aspect stands out for me. Each letter conveys an unshakeable sense of purpose—one which is used also as a call to action for those on the outside. I experienced firsthand this call to action brought on by Bernard’s case, witnessed his friends and classmates, even dozens of strangers spring to action. Petitions were circulated, vigils were planned, and meetings with legislators were scheduled. In the end, Bernard was freed.
But not everyone who finds himself in that position is as fortunate. Bernard has said that while in jail, he befriended others awaiting deportation, offering prayers and consolation as they prepared to be sent back to their countries of birth. Left behind were wives, children, and peaceful lives which were not at all deserving of the same jumpsuits and shackles given to violent offenders.
MLK’s legacy calls each of us to reflect upon and challenge the injustices in our communities. For the immigrant rights community in Ohio, it’s no secret that the epicenter of injustice is Butler County, where Bernard was first detained before being transferred to Morrow County Jail. In Butler County, injustice takes many forms—law enforcement intimidation, dehumanizing hate speech, and abuse of power. Given the recent shift in Ohio’s elected officials, this power may be further exploited to develop legislation to target immigrants in Ohio. Those who feel the brunt of these unjust policies are people of color, the descendants of the native peoples of the Americas. Yet the struggle for immigrant rights continues both nationally and locally.
It is within this context that I share the following excerpt from the immensely powerful letter written by Martin Luther King Jr. as he sat in that narrow cell in Birmingham Jail. The letter was written as a response to his fellow (White) clergymen who thought that the fight for social justice was better waged in the courtroom than in the streets, albeit peacefully. Paradoxically, we face adversity even from our allies who, as Dr. King puts it, are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Let us hope that they, perhaps more than anyone, heed the call to action—direct, peaceful, deliberative action.
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"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.'
... I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: '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.'"
"Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore." -Cesar Chavez