04/10/2008 11:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jamal, MLK, and Me

In commemorating the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination, I had the honor of participating in a reading of his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," sponsored by the Berkeley NAACP and Revive the Vote.

On my way to the event, a young man was selling CDs on the street. Delving into stereotypes, at first glance, I saw him as a typical urban, African American male between the ages of 18-24, in downtown Berkeley with nothing better to do with his time than hang out with his friends.

Given my middle-aged worldview, whether it was subliminal or conscious, there was nothing positive about my first impression of him.

When he asked if I wanted to buy a CD, I don't recall even looking in his direction, let alone affirming his humanity by simply telling him I was not interested. After all, I had something important to do; I was participating in the memory of Dr. King.

My ignoring his solicitation did not prohibit this young man from saying something to me for not granting him the civility of an acknowledgment. Waiting for the light to change so I could be on my way gave me enough time to see just how paradoxical my behavior was.

How could I possibly celebrate the life of a man who was assassinated while advocating for those on the margins and not affirm the humanity of this young man? To not go back would have represented the height of hypocrisy.

As I went back to inquire what he was selling, fortunately for me, he did not hold my disrespectful behavior against me. He responded to me as if my initial boorish attitude never occurred.

He told me the CD he was selling reflected the conditions that he saw in West Oakland. I told him I would buy a CD, but he first would have to go with me to the reading. To my surprise and delight he agreed.

As we walked to the event, he told me his name was Jamal. He also shared with me he was 22, a writer, and a father of a three-year-old daughter. He had a part-time job at a nonprofit organization; and like so many of his contemporaries, life for him, in the words of Langston Hughes, "aint been no crystal stair."

When we arrived at the event, a reporter, who recognized me, wanted my comments about King's legacy and how it relates to the current youth violence. When I finished she then turned to Jamal to interview him, who clearly had his own observations to share.

I watched as Jamal read King's entire 6000-word epistle along with the five designated readers. During the discussion period he shared with those in attendance that prior to this all he knew about King was his "I Have a Dream" speech. But the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" had sparked something within him.

Jamal made these comments without realizing he had sparked something within me. He reminded me how easy it is in our sound bite culture to render an individual as a "nobody," whose humanity is not worth affirming, as the unwitting societal default.

Former Oberlin College President Robert Fuller has written extensively on the "Politics of Dignity," and how defining individuals by their perceived "rank" in life is corrosive to our society. Moreover, was it not challenging this notion that ultimately King was willing to exchange his life for?

Such actions do, however, require risk -- a somewhat antithetical concept in our increasingly risk adverse society.

Jamal was nothing like the preconceived box I was so anxious to place him in. He was curious about the world in a manner that I could only know by engaging in authentic dialogue.

Jamal stayed through the two-hour event and sold several CDs in addition to my commitment. As we parted ways, I gave him my card hoping he would contact me. We embraced; he then thanked me for the opportunity and the exposure. I thanked him for the same reasons.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him at or go to his website,