Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always one of my favorite days of the year not only because it commemorates and honors one of the greatest men to have ever graced the earth; but because every year on this day, I re-read Dr. King’s iconic and incendiary “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” Which fills me with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning and will hopefully do the same for you.
In my opinion, “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” ranks up there with the Gettysburg Address, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as one of the most brilliant and meaningful documents ever written. It is a call to action for people to dig deep within themselves and have the courage to stand up for justice and do what is right, in order to make their lives matter and mean something!
As Viktor Frankel wrote in his best selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everyone has his (her) own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he (she) cannot be replaced, nor can his (her) life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his (her) specific opportunity to implement it.”
Everything Dr. King wrote in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” can apply to the inherent tension in today’s society. Whether it is fighting racism, police brutality, antisemitism, religious freedom, free speech, women’s rights, the rights of girls to stand up and demand an education without fear of being shot in the head, gay rights, the fundamental right to marry, academic freedom, equality of opportunity. I could go on and on. None of the rights we enjoy today were just given to us. Our forefathers fought for them, they didn’t sit idly by - they acted! “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.”
Few will be as great as Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln or Bobby Kennedy but each of us can do our part. All three men knew that because of their actions they would never live to grow a full head of grey hair but they acted in spite of the fear. Because for them they had no other choice. Their lives were every bit ours if not their own. That is the truest sense of purpose and meaning. “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man (woman) stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he (she) sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”- Robert F. Kennedy, University of Capetown
So I ask you what will you do starting today to find your Passionate Purpose and live a life of Meaning?!
For starters, I urge you to read Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” in its entirety,
I know it is long but as he so eloquently wrote: “Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”
The following are my favorite passages from Dr. King’s, “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” If reading this does not make you want to act, hopefully it will at least make you think about what you are willing to fight for in your life and in your community. Because when you release the fear of following your “passionate purpose” whether it is for 30 minutes per day, part time or full time, not only do you bring meaning to your life but to your family’s lives and to your community.
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.“ - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter From A Birmingham Jail”
“You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking.“
"But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.“
"You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” "Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. “
"Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.”
“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.“
"But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.“
"Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.”
“I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.“
"Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”
“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.”
“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. 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. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wishing You All A Happy, Healthy & Meaningful New Year Filled With Pursuing Your Passionate Purpose! Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Mindful, Be Passionate and Be of Service!
Photo Credit: Stephen F. Somerstein, a City College of New York student, took photos of Dr. King’s Selma march and they’re now featured in a powerful new exhibit.Photo: Stephen F. Somerstein (3)