Pilgrimage to a Nonviolence Landmark

Birmingham jail 3.jpg

by Randall Amster

As far as spontaneous decisions go, this wasn’t the most outlandish one I’ve made. How hard could it be to locate a historical marker at the site where one of the great pieces of literary activism in the annals of nonviolent change was written? This was Birmingham after all, locus of so many foundational moments in the struggle for racial justice, and today part of the “New South” that seeks to evolve beyond the umbra of intolerance that shaped its past. Surely then, finding the place where Martin Luther King Jr. penned the stirring words in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963 would easily be accomplished by virtue of a prominent public display on par with the lasting impact of this central essay in the American lexicon.

Further, just as the journey to the site clearly must be imbued with a sense of distinction and an invitation to continue the dialogue, we might expect that the conditions King wrote about would be in the process of observable amelioration—if not outright elimination—over half a century later. King had glimpsed the view from the mountaintop, and if any words ever written or spoken could move mountains, they certainly would be the eminently enduring reminders from this monumental Letter that we are all one:

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.

What we found on the journey, however, was a familiar story, a recurring tale of dislocation and despair. Traversing the roadway from the downtown core quickly brought nothing but industrial and commercial compounds abutting the sidewalk, with interspersed parking areas and generic offices. Crossing under the expressway, the scenery noticeably shifted to even more forlorn conditions, with featureless gray facades indicating the outer edges of concentrated poverty so common in our cities and towns. We know there are such places wherever we may live, but the deeper reasons why they persist go largely uninterrogated:

I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.

Up ahead, a macabre tunnel beckoned, which would have to be navigated to reach the landmark. Rusting streetlamps cast an eerie hue, as stray beams of light passed through the rigid wire mesh of the overpass to project a series of tombstone-like images on the tunnel wall. It was grimy, untended, foreboding. Yet we wondered: did King himself walk through this tunnel? Did demonstrators fill these streets and sidewalks in a bygone day? Steeling ourselves, we implicitly summoned that sense of history to carry forth through the darkness ahead, increasingly aware of our own fears as they were being autonomically generated:

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…

Beyond the murky passage, the landscape rapidly worsened. Downed power lines the length of a city block skirted the walkway, forcing us into the street where vehicles scarcely inched over to avoid us. Were these live power lines draping the corridor? How long had they been left in such a state? The accumulation of garbage and grit indicated that this had been lingering for some time. Do children walk here? How long would those living here have to wait for even a single obvious danger to be remedied?

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.”

Forging ahead, we grew increasingly aware of our anachronistic appearance in this neighborhood. Still barely resembling a habitable area, it was becoming clear that people lived here, and that we were demographically divergent in obvious ways. Who were we in these moments of vulnerability and out-of-placeness? Cognitively, metaphysically, even spiritually, we grasped that our bourgeois fears as transitory visitors must pale in comparison to those ensnared in such conditions, even as true comprehension continued to elude us and the urgings of reflexive preconception made us clutch our wares tighter:

I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

We began to wonder out loud: is the monument nearby? Should we turn back? What are we doing? But just then a sign appeared, literally, advertising bail bonds out of a dilapidated structure across the street. This indicated that we were close, since a jail would have something like this nearby. Yet troublingly, we realized that there’s a jail somewhere right in the middle of this neighborhood where people live—and the only shops we’d seen that appeared to be open were a corner liquor store and a bail bond service. How did it come to be this way? How could society have let this happen?

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Proceeding further: another tunnel, defunct-looking thrift shops and shoe cobblers, a run-down house with menacing music and cerulean lights haphazardly strung about the yard. Finally, a reasonably well-lit corner beckoned ahead—how long had it been since the last streetlamp we passed?—and something resembling conventional commerce. But no, not quite. Seedy parking lots bracketed security-meshed storefronts; no giddy shoppers were out and about, but only dilapidated cars parked at awkward angles in front of crumbling signs with missing letters. To the left were what passed for spaces of habitation, lined in dreary rows behind alleyways, trash strewn about the streets. Why doesn’t someone do something about this? Why haven’t we done anything about it?

More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

We were lost, fully, and in more ways than one. In the unpaved parking lot of a closed burger joint, a car door opened and its faint interior light revealed a bevy of young passengers. We had been noticed, but not in a threatening manner. Why would it be like that, anyway? After all, we’re compassionate people seeking to connect with history. Surely being out of place but doing nothing wrong would be enough to keep the peace, right? But perhaps that’s the problem in the first place, our own cognitive dissonance:

We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with … injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

“Hi, um, do you know where we might find the Birmingham jail, I mean, you know, the one where Martin Luther King wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail?” Momentary blank stares yielded to a reply in the negative. No one had heard of it, apparently, or it wasn’t part of what the area was known for. What was it known for? The rumblings of implicit bias resurfaced, as our exposure heightened. But this was a warm exchange, just an ordinary interaction. “Thanks, we’ll figure it out.” Hopefully we all will someday.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

A quick reconnoitering ensued. We had gone too far. How did we miss the landmark? Still, the added blocks did bring us deeper into the neighborhood, revealing further insights into things we always already knew but all too frequently set aside. This was not a healthy environment, physically or mentally. What were the accumulated effects of growing up here? Juxtaposed to the well-maintained campus structures and downtown business towers, this neighborhood was rife with history but forgotten in the present. What would the future hold? This was an indefensible and unsustainable condition, a veritable seedbed of aggrieved despair that surely must be abated, somehow:

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever…. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.

Circling around, we quickened our pace and felt the wind at our backs. Through the dim streets we bounded ahead, the night punctuated intermittently with the sound of rustling leaves or a twig snapping on the sidewalk—with each occurrence tightening one’s throat and triggering a furtive glance behind us. We were interlopers, imperialists, impetuous fools. Nonetheless, we were on the right side of history (or was it the left?), and our earnestness surely would carry us forth safely. This wasn’t work for the timorous, after all:

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? 

Finally, at long last, there was a clear indication of our goal. It was right across from the bail bond place! We had missed it the first time through. Was it our haste and fear that impelled us too far? Was it the gaze of the tourist, the lassitude of the flaneur, the haze of righteousness, the aura of naivete? We had expected a grand presentation at this historical locus, something befitting the magnitude of the impact that King’s life and words had on us as scholars, activists, human beings. Perhaps we overestimated its importance, or more likely our own inability to fully comprehend how history underrepresents people to themselves:

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.

Suddenly a moment of recognition emerged. That nondescript structure was a police station, and next to it must be the jail. Yes, there it was, in all its glory: a humble placard fronting the parking lot, with two ordinary benches behind it. No one else was there. Had anyone been there recently, or at all? The inscription told how King wrote the letter on slips of paper, carried out to friends on the outside who compiled and edited it for him. He was in jail, but his spirit was soaring. He wrote words for the ages, taking the time to connect the dots of history and provide us with a template for change in the present. So he wrote, and 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…

We read both sides of the plaque. We took pictures and took to the benches. We talked about King, human rights, social justice, literature, failures, possibilities, inspirations. This was a pilgrimage on many levels, a journey from who and where we were to something new, something bold. There were missteps and foibles in evidence, but the sinuous energy of the moment merged with the tides of history to provide, even for a fleeting moment, a sense of hope and faith in the goodness of our fragile, eternal, brilliant lives:

… 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.

Alone we sat longing for a time that never was, a memory of something that never happened. King wrote not from the mountaintop, but from the grim enclosure of a jail encased in even deeper and more vexing confines. He knew the implications of this all too well, and we thought we knew it through him—namely that change begins with oneself, but can only be accomplished together. By getting lost along the way, perhaps we had found something in ourselves that had lain dormant in its rationalized isolation. Now we pledged to go forward in unison, recalling that the journey itself was the point, and that what we do along the way would define the arc of our mutual existence:

Yours for the cause of Peace…

And with this rekindled dedication, we embarked toward a future that remains ours to make.

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is co-director of the Justice and Peace Studies and Environmental Studies programs at Georgetown University. He is the author of books including Peace Ecology, and publishes widely on themes including social and environmental justice, nonviolence, and emerging technologies.