It is clear to me that Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and far too many other Black Americans in positions of leadership or influence are disgracing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Among the synonyms for disgrace that appear in Webster’s New World Thesaurus: dishonor, disregard, disrespect, heap dirt upon. Vocabulary.com defines legacy as “something handed down from one generation to the next. A retiring company president might leave a legacy of honesty and integrity.” King’s legacy is one of respect and love for others, thoughtfulness, commitment to nonviolence, faithfulness to God’s direction, orientation toward clear and noble goals, a willingness to die for what he believed and a multitude of other humanity-lifting qualities. Lewis and others are disgracing this legacy.
This thought of King’s legacy being disgraced occurs to me from time to time. However, the reports of Lewis and other black leaders boycotting the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Dec. 9, 2017, demanded I assess this action considering King’s legacy. In an article titled “Boycotted by black leaders, Trump speaks at civil rights museum opening,” Nancy Cook wrote, “Several civil rights leaders, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), boycotted the event after the Mississippi governor extended a last-minute invitation to the president. The NAACP urged Trump not to attend the event. Trump did not mention Lewis in his remarks.
“Civil rights veterans said that the president’s track record was poor on such issues – from his criticism of NFL players who supported the Black Lives Matter cause to his treatment of women and the disabled to the questions he frequently raised during his campaign about the legitimacy of the country’s first African-American president, President Obama.”
Lewis also refused to attend Trump’s inauguration. His reasoning comes through, in the following, from an article by Chuck Todd, Sally Bronston and Matt Rivera titled “Rep. John Lewis: ‘I don’t see Trump as a legitimate president:’”
“In an exclusive interview with NBC News’ ‘Meet the Press,’ Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said he does not believe Donald Trump is a ‘legitimate president,’ citing Russian interference in last year’s election.
“Asked whether he would try to forge a relationship with the president-elect, Lewis said that he believes in forgiveness, but added, ‘it’s going to be very difficult. I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.’”
I see the two boycotts referenced above as thoughtless, knee-jerk reactions that bypassed opportunities for educating a president about the Civil Rights Movement and creating a positive atmosphere for negotiating with him. Without a doubt, Lewis was a major contributor to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. The question at hand is: How are Lewis and others treating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” is one of many resources that provide substantive insights for answering the question.
The letter was written by King, dated April 16, 1963, while he was being held in the Birmingham city jail for leading and participating in demonstrations against segregation in the city. Eight Alabama clergymen had, on April 12, 1963, published a statement in a newspaper, signed by each of them, urging blacks to withdraw their support for King and his demonstrations. These clergy were in basic agreement with King that segregation should be addressed; however, they disagreed with his approach. They called for negotiation and use of the legal system in pursuing needed change. They described King as an “outsider” who used “extreme measures” that incited “hatred and violence.” To productively consider what I want to present now regarding King’s legacy and how it is being disgraced, one should read the clergymen’s statement and King’s response at: https://moodle.tiu.edu/ pluginfile.php/57183/mod_resource/content/1/ StatementAndResponseKingBirmingham1.pdf.
Given that King is writing to men who publicly challenged his being in Birmingham and characterized his actions as inciting “hatred and violence,” his very greeting contributes to defining King’s legacy – what he left to us. To these men, he wrote, “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” He puts forth an atmosphere conducive to thoughtfully addressing difficult issues.
King then calmly, in detail, speaks to every point raised by these clergymen. On the “outsider” objection, he explains that he is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. That organization had 85 affiliated organizations across the South. The Alabama Christian Movement of Human Rights was one of the affiliates. The Birmingham affiliate asked him to come, along with other staff members, and engage in “nonviolent direct action.”
King’s letter continues, “But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
King calmly addressed the outsider objection by showing that he was in Birmingham by invitation and because there was a need.
Regarding the call for negotiation, King wrote, “In any nonviolent campaign, there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.”
In that segment, he addressed the failed effort at negotiation while reminding these clergymen that his is a nonviolent approach.
Consider what King wrote as he neared the end of the letter: “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
Finally, a statement from the last paragraph: “I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”
Again, Martin King Jr.’s legacy is one of respect and love for others, thoughtfulness, commitment to nonviolence, faithfulness to God’s direction, orientation toward clear and noble goals, a willingness to die for what he believed, and a multitude of other humanity-lifting qualities. All of this shows through in that letter from the Birmingham city jail.
Consider this legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and honestly examine the attitudes and actions of Lewis and, in our time, other black Americans in positions of leadership or influence. Also, consider all the good King did for America and the world through his approach, as compared with the accomplishments of those who, I contend, disgrace his legacy. With few exceptions, I believe you will find people who, like Lewis, in the face of tremendously challenging issues, engage in thoughtless, knee-jerk reactions that feed an atmosphere of discord and pure hatred; the result is societal regression. Without regard to skin color, all Americans would be wise to understand, appreciate, and allow the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to inform our living and serving.
Photo: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.