This post first appeared in the January 14, 2017 edition of the Bristol Herald Courier
On Monday, banks will be closed. The mail will not run. A lot of students will get the day off, although some school systems (like BTCS) will use the day for a teacher in-service.
It’s MLK Day.
The cities of Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, will hold a community-wide march and celebration in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For many, MLK Day has become a very welcomed, much needed three-day respite; besides, who doesn’t need a few days off at the start of the New Year?
For me, though, the third Monday of January took on a new meaning when we lived in Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that I began to learn more about what King and others had to endure and what they had to do, sometimes simply to get the attention of good but silent people.
You know the type? They are the sort of folks who are good at heart. They know when something is wrong. They know when things need to change, but they very often fail to take any sort of risk in order to bring about change.
I learned about all that as I got to know people who lived in Birmingham in the early 1960s – at the time when Bull Connor was commissioner of public safety and King and others were planning peaceful marches in the city to protest injustices.
Most of the folks I talked to were good people, church people even. I asked them what it was like living in Birmingham in the ‘60s. They all said the nearly the same thing: “Oh, I didn’t have anything to do with all that; I stayed away.” They were good people who remained silent rather than risk anything to help bring change when it was needed.
Of course, that wasn’t the case for King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and a host of the others. In 1963 these folks gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church and put together a plan. It was a risky plan, but it was a plan they knew would reveal the depths of racial injustice that was rampant.
They also knew that it would rattle the good people of this country out of their silence – to the point that change could happen. It has become known as one of the most-important events in civil rights history. It is called the Birmingham Children’s Crusade simply because it involved children – some as young as 6.
It may seem strange to have allowed children to participate, especially given the way people had been treated in other marches, sit-ins, and kneel-ins.
But King and the other leaders knew the risk; they were not naïve. They knew they had to risk everything in order to bring about justice, and they knew young people needed to participate. They were counting on Connor and others to do as they always did. They were hoping that the presence of children would stir the good-but-silent to speak up.
King told parents not to worry about their children because, for one thing, they were about God’s work. He said, “These young people are about their father’s business. And they are carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountains of despair.”
So, the first week of May 1963, students and children walked peacefully in various parts of Birmingham. And, as expected, they were struck, cursed, washed down the street by water cannons, and arrested.
The violence was caught on film. There is an iconic photograph that marks the day, one of a young man being bitten by a dog. That image reached the soul of President John F. Kennedy and to some degree the heart of the nation.
Alot of kids, adults, and even King were arrested that day, but the risk they took helped to shift the momentum for civil rights. King spent three days in solitary confinement for his part in the Children’s Crusade.
It was from there that he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was a letter addressed to white clergy, whom he reminded that he was in Birmingham because injustice was there. In essence, he was reminding them that good people who are silent aren’t much help. No, good people need to be the sort who take risks that help bring the sort of changes our country needs.
If I learned anything at all while living in Birmingham, I at least learned why it is that we really ought to appreciate MLK Day.