01/21/2008 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Jail is the Price of Freedom: A Reality Check, Courtesy of MLK

I recently had a "what MLK means to me" moment, and I have to say, it took me by surprise. I suppose I was at an obvious place for it to happen--the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis--but there's something about the often department store, herd-them-through vibe of museums that don't often lend themselves to contemplative thought.

But there I was last summer, having a shift of consciousness right in front of this "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." If this had been a play, I'd have pooh-poohed the staging as too obvious. Why? Because I have a fear of being imprisoned. Or more to the point, I fear what can happen to you once imprisoned--once someone decides you're subhuman, or they want something from you that you can't possibly give. I've feared this for a long time. I've never been imprisoned before. Yet I live with this fear, and I brought it, full-grown, on my trip south to Mississippi.

I spent most of summer 2007 in New Albany, birthplace of Faulkner. Some of my friends and family were freaked out when I told them of my plans; say "Mississippi" and many conjure up the worst sort of violence and backwards thought. I had positive travel experiences there before, so I expected to be OK. And I was--I experienced only the warmest of hospitality from all whom I encountered. I lived with the grandmother-in-law of my college friend Becky. Miss Elizabeth (90, white, wise as she is elegant, with an "I Miss Bill" sticker on the car she still drives) would take me around and introduce me to her friends in town. I felt roundly welcomed.

Despite this, my fear of jail was never far from my mind. I was a young woman of color traveling alone. I drove an oldish black pick-up truck (Tuffy!) that kept threatening to die on me. My registration had expired; I needed to get to Texas to renew and that couldn't happen until I received a certain check--a long way of saying that it would take some weeks before I got sorted. In Michigan, an expired registration would get you a ticket. But down there, and a stranger in town...I knew an expired license could have you brought in. If I broke down, or got pulled over, would I be arrested, too? With no extensive network of local connections, how vulnerable would I be?

I lucked out: 3000 miles of travel and no breakdowns/incidents. But my fear of jail lived on. This fear was not just about "southern justice" or the lack thereof. It was a deep sensing that the "equal protection under the law" that I took for granted up North just wasn't as strong there--that the local power structures were more powerful than any federal or even statewide systems, and if I found myself on the wrong side of one of its enforcers, I was in trouble.

This all may sound master of the obvious, or, paranoid, but I've spent many years running around with a sense of bulletproof obliviousness to my true circumstances. I used to do presidential advance work overseas. By definition, you're supposed to be fearless. But often, this fearlessness is just stupidity. I think of the way we used jump into vans chauffeured by foreign drivers and race along mountain roads, laughing at the way our driver would cut people off, how close we seemed to crashing, no one even bothering to put on a seatbelt as if this were all a dream sequence with a guaranteed ending. We thought we were so protected--by our bosses, by our passports, by the USG. However, once I lived abroad, and actually started to soak in the dangers of my new home (Abuja, Nigeria) I vowed to myself to do my best to respect my situations, to see things as clearly as possible, so I wouldn't end up with ugly surprises that could have been avoided.

Ugly surprise-in-point: jail. I used to be quite vocal about this fear. On my last advance trip for President Clinton, in New Orleans in November 2006, I joked with the secret service agents, telling them I feared New Orleans' notorious Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). Growing up in Michigan, I never knew of any place as reportedly dungeon-like as OPP. Get picked up in suburban Troy and something tells me that the holding cell would smell as clean as a mopped classroom. But in OPP, I'd heard about roaches, spiders, and rats running rampant in the stinking heat--the stuff of living nightmare given my major bug phobias. (Don't ask how I survived the Gulf Coast South--I just did.)

I'd heard that anyone and everyone could end up at OPP--forget to pay a ticket and you could end up sharing an overcrowded holding cell with the roughest of New Orleans' criminals (and bugs). I remember how the secret service agents looked at me when I voiced my fear. One of them was like, what would you do to end up there? And I wanted to say, look, maybe for you guys in law enforcement, you with power strapped to your waists, it never occurs to you that you might not be on the giving end of order(s). But for those of us who have a healthy respect for the fact that fortunes do reverse, shit does happen, or worse, people do get targeted, it can't help but blow this Northern girl's mind that a missed ticket could lead her to a night of hell.

[I later came to learn that in New Orleans, you're supposed to know a judge--that a judge can get you out of OPP lickety-split. I never met a judge, but I did have an agent friend who promised me she outranked all the OPP guys, so I was not to worry. Still, I did.]

However, on that overcast July day in Memphis, I didn't have jail on my mind. I was too stunned by the sight of the Lorraine Motel, looking as it purportedly did on the day of Dr. King's murder 40 years ago (the rest of the museum was built around and into motel structure). A wreath marked the spot on the balcony where he fell. Others walked with me, their reverent, sad silence mixed with the squeals of kids coming in groups, coming with families, coming to learn about this man who has his own day, and his own street, in every city of the land.

I spent a long time inside the museum, reading many of the papers on display, doing the winding through that can feel like being herded, but helps the journey become even more experiential.

Then I came upon the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" display. There was a full-scale model of his jail cell. This has its own drama, of course. But I was pulled more into the text of the words hung on the wall. As I read, I felt two feelings: awe and shame. I felt the awe I had for his bravery grow with intensity. But suddenly, I felt shame for spending all this time tending to my fear of imprisonment. Not that jail shouldn't be feared, but the fact is, so many activists and everyday people before me swallowed those fears and walked facefirst into the fire. 40 years later, I sit here reaping the benefits. I live a life of relative freedom, mobility and peace. So much so, that I can travel the world as a representative of the American president. So much so, I can drive around the American South, relatively safe, uneasy not because I've been threatened, but because I'm so good at conjuring worst case scenarios. The progress is so utterly palpable.

I usually never think of shame as a healthy emotion, but I am grateful for the wake-up call I felt that day. Common people, like me, like you, went to jail. That was the cost. They paid it. So while I will keep my respect for the jailhouse, thank you very much, I realize that for all of us, as we fight against injustice, this may be the price we pay, too. I need to be zen about this possibility. Whether I will remains to be seen. But I did have an attitude adjustment that day, next to Dr. King's jail cell. So on this day, let me say thank you, Dr. King, for continuing to teach us by not only your powerful words, but by your mighty, mighty example.