Today my mind is carried back to one of the resources I referred to many times in teaching high school and college English — The Norton Reader. The selection in this text which impressed me the most was written by a person who was in jail at the time. Since there was no real manuscript paper available, the author had used the margins of a newspaper, scraps of writing paper supplied by a jail “trusty” and later and note pad which the writer was finally permitted to receive from his attorney.
You can see that the one who composed in this manner must have had a very strong desire to communicate a response to something important. That something was a statement in the very newspaper the margins upon which the writer could not resist beginning a response.
The author was a clergyman, and his composition was written in the form of a letter to the eight clergymen who had placed a statement in the newspaper.
I am an admirer of the traditional attitude of debate — the kind that refers to the holder of the opposing opinion as “my worthy opponent” and develops arguments based on a deep respect for the truth and a desire to persuade the opposition, rather than simply ridicule him or her.
(I was not disappointed by the writer in this instance.) Points were made as a result of sound logic, and the tone was serious in the manner of good conversation rather than the desire to belittle or condemn. The writer quoted important thinkers and writers from history. This was amazing, since he had no resources at hand to which he could refer. It was evident that he had long been a student of these great ones and had settled in his own mind his true direction in life. He quoted important thinkers who were also biblical figures, but in no way was the composition a sermon in which the clergymen were admonished with the threat of hellfire and brimstone.
The letter begins with this friendly salutation: “My Dear Fellow Clergymen” and closes with “yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.” And all points in between were presented in what the author said he hoped they would be: that was in “patient and reasonable terms.” In my opinion, this was quite a difficult task, considering that the jail was not the most accomodating atmosphere for contemplation.
One of the important points made concerned the author’s presence in the town where the jail was located. It seems that the ministers who had put their statement in the newspaper were opposed to him because he came from somewhere else. This puts me in mind of the old westerns in which, when a horse had been stolen, the townspeople wanted to string up the first stranger who appeared in their midst.
The author answered the complaint that he came from somewhere else and hadn’t any business in their city with the explanation that he had been invited because injustice was being done there. And he insisted, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” (Maybe he should have said “should never be considered,” but he didn’t. He didn’t leave any room for us to get by with being prejudiced.)
Another subject in the letter was that of timing. You must have noticed that we Americans have a fetish about time. In some countries, no one notices whether the train is late. But here in the good ole United States of America we want everything to be on time, and when it isn’t, we get our underwear in a twist. In the author’s case, however, he maintained that waiting around for things to change and/or expecting time to right all wrongs without any action on our part is not realistic.
Then, too, there is the problem of public demonstrations, which the good ministers declared in their statement to be the unsuitable effects of his presence in their city. He declared that it is not really fair to deal merely with the effects of a situation and not “grapple with the underlying causes.”
He goes on to describe the training in nonviolence which he had provided in “a series of workshops.” These were the questions that he and those who trained with him repeatedly asked themselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
Asked why he used sit-ins and marches instead of negoationas, he said that, of course, it is better to negotiate, but that he couldn’t get negotiations without building up enough tension to get the community to participate in it.
His closing remark was positive. He said it this way: “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.”
(Information from “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” by Martin Luther King Jr.)