THE BLOG
01/20/2015 12:10 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

As a Child of the South

It is right and good that we pause to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the occasion of what would have been his 86th birthday. It is fitting that we rededicate ourselves to the work he so faithfully pursued, which might be understood as freedom for black Americans. As a white child of the South, though, I see it as bigger than that. I see my own freedom is very much at issue, too. These last months have reminded me of some things that there are some things a child of the South is in a particularly advantageous position to remind us all of.

As a child of the South, I know we have not yet fully achieved Dr. King's dream of the banquet on the red hills of Georgia, from which I came, prepared for the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners. As a child of the South, I am also in a privileged position to observe our present struggles following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and I'm afraid, others. As a child of the South, I know I have heard things from my northern brothers and sisters that I have heard before.

I first studied the Letter from a Birmingham Jail in college. As a child of the South who can remember the circumstances to which it is addressed, and as a bishop of The Episcopal Church, I am carried away with its prophetic power and compelling witness to the faith of Easter Day, two days after which it was published in1963. In fact, I am so caught up in its witness standing alone that I almost forget the Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written in response to another letter, a letter we have little reason to remember until its themes resurface in our own time.

The letter to which Dr. King responded is generally known as "A Call for Unity." It appeared as an open letter in the Birmingham News on April 12, 1963, which ironically enough was Good Friday that year, and signed by eight prominent Birmingham clergy. Two of them were Episcopal bishops. The bishops and their fellow clergy had three principle themes.

The first was a plea to reject outside influences. The clergy leaders complained, "[W]e we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders." When the revelation of injustice got beyond our ability to suppress, we in the South pointed the finger of blame at "outside agitators," whom we sought to discredit and from whom we sought to separate local leaders in a failed attempt to deflect the blame for what was happening from ourselves. "We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham," our clergy leaders wrote in Birmingham.

Dr. King responded.

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.

As perhaps only a child of the South could hear, I recognize the outside agitator argument when I hear it. What I hope has gone the way of Bull Connor in Birmingham, it turns out, is alive and well in St. Louis 51 years later. The Christian Science Monitor reported on August 19 that "[p]oliticians and police in Missouri say much of the recent violence in Ferguson, Mo., is due to outside instigators." We must support the efforts to separate violence from peaceful protest, of course, but we must also not succumb to the red herring of outside agitation. There can be no such thing for Americans in their own country. And there be no such thing for Christians, who are told to "bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Gal. 6:2)

The Alabama religious leaders' second theme was to keep the peace. As a child of the South, I've heard that one before, too. "We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely" says "A Call for Unity." They were unwise and untimely because they disturbed the peace. "[W]e also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems."

Dr. King responded from jail.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. 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. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well-timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. 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."

Here's what we learned at home in the South. Peace can never be disturbed by justice. Where there is disturbance, there was no peace to begin with. That's why I was shocked to hear both civil and religious leaders in my adopted hometown of New York espouse the same superficial analysis that Dr. King criticized to the aftermath of the grand jury's failure to indict the police officer videotaped killing Eric Garner. When a lone gunman acted in misguided vengeance and killed two police officers, our mayor, Bill de Blasio, called for an end to the demonstrations that had been notable precisely for their peacefulness in calling for justice. "That," he said, "can be for another day." As a child of the South, I knew what those words meant because I have heard them before. There is no excuse for violence toward public servants. There is no excuse for violence ever. But neither is there an excuse for the delay of justice. Ever.

And finally, my Birmingham counterparts 51 years ago reminded their people of the importance of law and order. "We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed." Well, that gets to the crux of the matter, doesn't it?

As a child of the South, this one, too, rings a familiar bell. We had laws in the South, after all. We had processes. But we came to see that injustice can be easily hidden behind process. Dr. King, you will remember, wrote his letter from jail, a jail in which he was being held for engaging in peaceful protest. There is no doubt he violated the law. As a child of the South, I learned that legality and justice are not necessarily coterminous.

And that's why I've been surprised to hear people from places who intervened when my own native region was imperiled by the disease of racism resort to the same arguments I heard all around me at the time. I'm surprised to hear people we would have called outside agitators seek to displace attention from where it belongs under the same label. I'm surprised to hear people we would have seen as disturbing the peace seek to maintain a peace that is no peace at all. I'm surprised to hear people who rallied to the call of justice now resort just to the same "appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense" the Alabama clergy did.

As a child of the South, I'm surprised; as a human being, maybe not so much. Still, I think Dr. Martin Luther King's Birthday celebration might not be a bad time for a child of the South to share what he remembers and, I hope, learned. Maybe it will help all of us hear a little better, too. Maybe it's time for children of the South to be the outside agitators.