“Extremists” for Justice–”Letter from a Birmingham Jail”–Kate Ballou

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., behind bars.  Image from www.terrymarshallfiction.com

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., behind bars. Image from http://www.terrymarshallfiction.com

Though we’ve arrived back in Lexington, our class still continues to learn a great deal. Recently, Professor Delaney passed out a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for us to read. I must admit, though I feel as though I should have by this point in my educational career, I had not ever read this letter in its entirety before. Though I knew Dr. King to be a profound, moving orator and an intelligent, inspiring leader, I was extremely struck by the absolute persuasive genius of his argument. Most specifically, I loved how Dr. King dealt with the argument of he and the other activists’ presence as “outside agitators”; by using both biblical and historical context, Dr. King reminded the Clergy and continues to remind those who study this letter today that sometimes, “extremists” or “agitators” are moral, nonviolent people acting on behalf of what they believe to be just and true.

 

Addressed to a set of Clergymen who had criticized Dr. King’s visit to Birmingham in the Spring of 1963 as “unwise and untimely,” the Letter frames many of its logical points in a Christian context. Dr. King knew his audience, and in only the third paragraph of the ten-page letter, he appeals directly to Christian tradition in a way that the Clergymen would immediately recognize by writing, “…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ…so I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town” (King, Jr., from http://www.africa.upenn.edu). By comparing the Civil Rights movement to the spread of Christian faith, Dr. King incorporates his ideals and his reasons for coming to Birmingham into a discourse with which his critics in the Church would no doubt identify. Dr. King completely dispels the notion that he could sit idly by and let injustice happen in Alabama by stating, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”(King, Jr.).

 

Abraham Lincoln: another "extremist". Image from wikipedia.com

Abraham Lincoln: another “extremist”. Image from wikipedia.com

Later in the Letter, Dr. King beautifully addresses the concept of “extremism.” Acknowledging that many of the critics of nonviolent direct action categorize Civil Rights activists as “extremists”, Dr. King states that he did not mean to be “extreme” on the spectrum of other oppressed blacks in the South. However, he later states, “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist…I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love?”(King, Jr.). Dr. King then goes on to cite several examples, both biblical and historical, that both the clergymen for whom this letter was intended and students today would immediately recognize. Dr. King adds the names of Amos, Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson to the ranks of “extremists” who fought for justice, the gospel, piety, freedom, and equality. I found the argument to especially effective: all of the above men are lauded by our society for their heroism for Christianity and for America. Yet, at one point or another, all were considered “radical” by their adversaries; each set forth an idea that, while important, had not yet been embraced by the whole populace at the time when each man took the world stage. Each man faced and endured incredibly adversity from their opponents. Similarly, the brave men and women of the Civil Rights Movement strove to demonstrate to the United States that “separate but equal” wasn’t equal, that every American should have the right to vote, and that no one should endure racial discrimination and intolerance in nation that embraced the lofty ideals of “liberty and justice for all”. If being “radical” or “extreme” meant standing up for what he believed to be right, then Dr. King asserted that he was quite content with being labeled as such.

 

Along our journey through the South for this class, we met several people who, at the time, were considered “extremists” or “radicals” simply for exercising their constitutional right to sit where they wished on international bus lines and to enjoy American citizenship without discrimination. Usually, when I hear the word “extremist”, I picture a violent person who embodies ideals that are actually quite harmful to most of the populace. However, the activists we were fortunate enough to meet did not fit that image in the slightest. All were nonviolent. All embodied the ideals of freedom and equality. Yet, their generation categorized them as “extremists”. However, our talk with Dr. Ed King was quite reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King’s treatment of the notion of extremism in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. I remember asking Dr. Ed King about his involvement in the Civil Rights movement. He said that all his life, he had considered himself a “moderate”, and when he first joined the movement, he remembered thinking that surely, other moderates would come to the aid of he and his fellow activists; after all, they were only students, they were nonviolent, and they were acting for a cause that embraced the American tenets of justice and equality for all. However, he quickly learned that no “moderates” would come to the aid of he and his fellow activists, and he soon found himself being called “extreme”, simply for joining the cause for Civil Rights.

 

Reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter and thinking back to my conversation with Dr. Ed King, I wonder if there will be a point in my life where my viewpoint on a subject will be considered “radical”. I also wonder if I will have the strength to embrace my “radicalism” if what I’m being radical for is the right thing to do. I hope so; though, much like Dr. Ed King, I’ve always considered myself a moderate, I’ll have to think back to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and all the other “extremists” whose ranks I’d be happy to join.

The Final Stop–Jonathan Cahill

Lexington, VA
7 May 2014

Our trip has carried us through eight states in ten days.  Though not the same as a Greyhound or Trailways bus, our Town and Country minivan has served us well on our 2,000 mile saga in the Lower South.  The original Freedom Riders set out from Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961 to test the Morgan and Boynton decisions.  The riders wanted to see whether or not southern states would allow interstate passengers, black and white, to ride side by side and to use the same facilities on their journey.  These original riders were trained by members of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in non-violent techniques and included such civil rights luminaries as John Lewis, James Farmer, and James Peck.  Splitting into two groups, one riding Greyhound and the other Trailways, they hoped to travel to New Orleans and challenge the Jim Crow laws that imposed segregation in the South.  One group of riders met violent resistance in Anniston, AL, being attacked by a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen.  The other group reached Birmingham, only to be savagely beaten by Klansmen at the bus terminal while local police turned a blind eye.

A New Way to Freedom Ride

A New Way to Freedom Ride

With several of the riders languishing in the hospital and with mounting threats of violence and confrontation, this original band of Freedom Riders was unable to reach New Orleans by bus.  However, student activists at Fisk University in Nashville, led by Diane Nash, took up the mantle of the original group and determined to carry out the ride to New Orleans.  These new riders, mostly comprised of members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were unable to reach New Orleans.  Instead, they filled Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm with non-violent inmates, suffered violence at the hands of white supremacists, and drew the ire of President Kennedy for tarnishing America’s image abroad.  Most importantly, the riders captured the attention of the nation, making it a witness to the deep-seated injustices of the Jim Crow South encouraging many to become involved in the struggle for racial equality.

Unlike those first Freedom Riders, I did not face any hostility while on my journey.  As I planned to travel, I did not worry about writing my will or saying my last goodbyes to family and friends.  I did not fear any impending violence or resistance.  I did not feel as if I were challenging any social norms or threatening any prejudices.  In fact, everyone I told about the class responded very positively to the idea of going on the ride.  I was encouraged to participate in it and was repeatedly told “Wow! That sounds like a really cool trip.  I wish I could go!”

On the ride itself we were never chased by angry Klansmen.  We were never beaten or mocked for eating together in a restaurant or staying in the same hotel.  The citizens of Birmingham, Jackson, Selma, and everywhere in between treated us with respect and kindness, and exemplified that legendary southern hospitality.

It is amazing the difference that 50 years can make to a region and a country.  Yes, there are still grievous inequalities in America, the harmful effects of racism remain, and blacks and whites alike continue to suffer from crippling poverty.  However, I believe the progress the South and the nation as a whole has made in the past half-century is very encouraging.  It would have been almost unthinkable for a racially diverse group of students like ours to have taken a similar trip the 1960s.  Our class would not have been able to eat together in the same restaurants or sleep in the same hotels.  We might have been labeled as radicals, or subversives, or at the very least held in suspicion by many we came across.  Fortunately, this is not the case today.  Serious problems remain in our society, and meeting these issues will require the same courage, commitment, and sacrifice exemplified by those who boarded the buses on a ride for freedom.  But these challenges are surmountable.  Through perseverance, determination, courage—and a little divine assistance—America can fulfill its promise to be a nation where all are equal, where all can enjoy the same rights and liberties, and where all are treated with dignity and respect.

W&L’s Travellers

Initiated by invitation -Nathaniel Hayes

Dr King

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” addressed critics among the clergy, who regarded his actions as “unwise and untimely,” is both a work of genius and a work of art.

In this meticulously crafted letter, Dr. King shows his critics both the wisdom and “timeliness” of his actions and the actions of Birmingham’s black citizens. Throughout the letter, it is clear that he maintains a loving yet scornful tone to these particular critics. Dr. King made clear that he desired their support in the fight for justice, but by encouraging patience and the endurance of suffering, the clergymen, and other white moderate, were his greatest hindrance.

However, before he offers enlightenment on the necessity for direct action in the fight toward obtaining civil rights, Dr. King first establishes a foundation for his presence by answering the issue the clergymen raised by writing: “we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens – directed and led in part by outsiders.”

As a leader of the movement, Dr. King understood the great tension between white citizens and “outsiders.” It was the outsiders who had been pegged as agitators of violence, and, therefore, strangers who had come with malice in their hearts and the intention to disturb the peace. Very smoothly, Dr. King addresses this by challenging the label “outsiders.”  King asserts: “Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

After outlining his organizational involvement with the City of Birmingham, Dr. King assures his critics that he has come to this city after being extended an invitation. By accepting that invitation, he cannot be an outsider or intruder, but a welcome guest. Before attempting to support the acts of civil disobedience, Dr. King establishes himself as an insider in order to open their ears to his words that were to follow.

Here, I see great power in an invitation. Invitations result in an open door for those invited and the option to accept hospitality, or close this door himself.

What these clergymen attempted is to assert is that the outcome of affairs in Birmingham would be decided by only the citizens of that city. Dr. King demonstrates that responsible citizens had invited him there; he then refutes the need for an invitation by asserting that the grossly unjust racial practices of Birmingham negate the need for an invitation. Additionally, he notes that as an American citizen, he does not require an official invitation to any place in the United States. Dr. King related this designation as outsiders to a form of segregation, which is a type a separation. Furthermore, he reminds this group of ministers that upholding separation favors sin, since sin is separation from God.

Through a brief introduction which addresses concerns about the timeliness and wisdom of nonviolent action, Dr. King has starkly refuted these clergymen based on his values an ordained minister.  He deftly dismissed their accusation that he was no more than an outside agitator, gave them a theologically based argument that God called him to witness justice. Within a simple invitation lies the separation from injustice to justice; wrong to right; death to life. While reading this letter from Dr. King, I stopped ask myself “What are you inviting?”

Mississippi and Memphis 029

Reflections Upon Arriving Home – Alexis Blight

We arrived back safely in Lexington early this evening. It feels great to be home! Eight or so cities in ten days is quite an adventure. The drive today from Nashville to Lexington gave me time to reflect on the trip as a whole. Although it was wonderful to see the many sites of the Civil Rights Movement, the people we met along the way have left an even stronger lasting impression.

Our tour guide at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama was particularly inspiring. She was an older black woman who had grown up in Montgomery in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, she often led freedom songs at mass civil rights meetings beginning at a young age.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church

As the tour was nearing its end, we took a seat in the front pews of the church – the same pews Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had looked out at many years ago when he served as pastor of the church’s congregation. Our guide concluded the tour by giving us each a charge. She reminded us we were children of God – unique people who had something very special to offer the world. She encouraged us to soak in all that we were learning on our class trip and go into the world as ambassadors of Christ and ambassadors of love.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church - inside

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church sanctuary

Over the past ten days we have learned of countless young men and women in their twenties who did exactly that – acted as ambassadors of love and peace. They risked their well-being, education, and sometimes even their own lives in the fight for racial equality. Despite overwhelming violence and oppression, they maintained a non-violent tactic in order to overcome evil.

Above all, this trip has provided me with new role models and has inspired me to pursue something noble and meaningful upon graduating from W&L.  I look forward to more class discussions and time to reflect on my experiences in the final weeks of class.

A Journey Full of Heroes–Kate Ballou

Fisk University Memorial Chapel

Fisk University Memorial Chapel

As our trip through the South comes to an end, I hope to reflect on our last day of “traveling class” in Nashville and on the trip as a whole. On our last day of class, we visited Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Fisk, a historically African American university established in 1866, became the hub of student nonviolent coordinating activity during the Civil Rights movement. At Fisk, courageous leaders like Diane Nash and Jim Lawson flourished. They helped train their fellow students and prospective freedom riders and activists in nonviolent action, organized activism in Nashville itself, and organized full-out Freedom Rides. The idea of college students carrying out such great feats is truly humbling and inspiring. While I think that our generation has not faced a moral or ethical issue of the same scale and importance as Nash and Lawson’s struggle, I can only hope that if we did, we would take the same amount of intelligent, carefully planned action.

Diane Nash

Diane Nash

Nash’s dedication, intelligence, and bravery are truly inspiring. As we walked the same sidewalks through Fisk’s campus that Nash herself traveled, I thought back to a story we’d seen recounted both in Arsenault’s book and in several documentaries. When it was announced that after the first Freedom Ride, the second Freedom Ride would depart from Nashville thanks to Nash, an astonished Attorney General Robert Kennedy reportedly asked, “Who the hell is Diane Nash?”. Following this, the Kennedy administration called Nash to try and prevent her from carrying out the Freedom Ride. She calmly and tacitly informed the caller that no matter what, the rides would continue. She stated that she and the Riders were well aware of the dangers they faced, but that the knew that they could not discontinue the rides in the face of that danger. What I love about that story is Nash’s poise and grace even under fire. When I think about Nash’s age and story in context with my own, I hope to demonstrate the same tact and strength if I’m ever faced with a situation in which I am the underdog, arguing for what I believe.

 

Thinking back on the trip as a whole, Nash, while an outstanding pioneer, joins the ranks of thousands of other people, young, old, black, white, religious, and secular who banded together and risked their jobs and even their lives in order to gain Civil Rights for all in the United States. While at the National Civil Rights museum in Memphis, one photo caught our class’s eye. The museum had dedicated a wall to the mug-shots of Freedom Riders who had been arrested. We scanned the photos, looking at the facial expressions of each rider. Some looked fierce and defiant, some looked placid and stoic, others were laughing; yet, none looked defeated. Arsenault’s book actually describes how what could have been a horrific stay in Mississippi’s notoriously gruesome Parchman Prison turned into a rallying point for many. Despite diverse ideologies and backgrounds, imprisoned Freedom Riders at Parchman exchanged ideas, sang freedom songs, carried out hunger strikes, and preserved their ideals. The fact that so many people, from so many different backgrounds could come together in such a mentally and physically exhausting context as prison speaks volumes about the dedication and strength of spirit of the Freedom Riders. I cannot imagine going to prison. At my internship last summer, I would assist attorneys when conducting jail interviews. Walking into the interview room in the jail for the first time was a shocking experience in and of itself, so the notion of actually being incarcerated in a prison would be terrifying. Yet, the Freedom Riders kept up their bravery despite the trials and tribulations that they faced along their journey.

 

Reverend Ed King, one of the activists we were fortunate enough to meet.

Reverend Ed King, one of the activists we were fortunate enough to meet.

Looking back at the former activists we were lucky enough to meet along the way, their clear strength and commitment to civil rights was clear; some of them, such as Joan Browning and Dr. Ed King spoke of how they themselves had been imprisoned. While their bravery at such an intimidating prospect was astonishing, equally astounding was the notion that such kind-hearted, pleasant people were locked up simply for exercising their constitutional rights.  Before the Freedom Rides, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on interstate bus lines was unconstitutional. Therefore, it was completely within the rights of a black Freedom Rider to sit wherever he or she chose on an interstate bus. Yet, laws of “custom” rather than constitutionality governed the South when it came to the issue of segregation. The fact that the men and women we spoke with, along with the rest of the Freedom Riders, were quite willing to spend time in jail and even prison in the face of technically unconstitutional arrest is truly remarkable.

 

The diversity of the Freedom Riders and often, their young age is very inspiring. It means that when our country is faced with its most important moral questions, we can count on the bravest among us, no matter their race or upbringing, to take swift and decisive action. The journey we took on this class has taught me so much, not only about the evils of bigotry and racism, but of the strength, grace, and unyielding ethics of thousands of young Americans. While our journey is over, I look forward to continuing to learn for the next week and a half of our class.

To live or not to live -Nathaniel Hayes

LBJ Quote

““We thought some of us would be killed,” [Lucretia] Collins explained years later. “We certainly thought that some, if not all of use, would be severely injured”” (Arsenault, 186).

A friend once noted a willingness to die for me, if necessary. I thought about the meaning and significance of this. This person literally expressed unconditional love and a willingness to walk with me through any problem I might face in life. Amazing! Generally, I am not a person who shows my dedication to friendship until I am sure that the commitment is worth the investment, but there was something mind-blowing about this conversation – I could not imagine giving my life for anyone. What would the verbal commitment to reciprocate mean for me? The only person that I had heard to do something similar was Jesus, and he suffered the worst possible death. Could I really make a commitment of this magnitude to a friend?

Diane Nash

Today’s visit to Fisk reminded me of one person – Diane Nash. While it was her name that I recalled, it was that passion she and nine others demonstrated: “We can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead” (181). Furthermore, they used this passion as the fuel needed to continue of the Freedom Rides after the fire bombing of the bus in Anniston, and the bloody assault of riders in Birmingham. Each student boarded a bus armed with the passion and decisiveness to sacrifice life for the mission of justice. Each student who volunteered to take action seemed to have an understanding that the fight was not their own, but an on-going battle that must be fought with the unity of people throughout the United States. This was not an individual battle, but one that would be won, as people are willing to give their lives for others.

 

This visit to Fisk and thoughts of Diane Nash, along with other college students from this campus, caused me to reflect. In my reflection, I considered a question Joan Browning posed to our class two weeks ago: What would put you on a Freedom Ride journey? What do you care enough about to be beaten and tear gassed for supporting?

From here, I revisited the question my friend inadvertently presented to me: For whom would I give my life?

Still baffled and lacking the passion and determination to whole hearted answer any of these questions, I reconsidered some past lessons from my journey through the American South, particularly the idea of the White Americans (both Southern and Northern) who fought and gave their lives for Black Americans in this era. This led me to ask more questions.

Had I been in their position, would I have been a white supporter of the Civil Rights Movement? Would I have the dedication and motivation to step out against my neighbors who were the Klansmen or members of the White Citizen’s Council? Would I have a stronger desire for acceptance from my neighbors than a desire for justice?

KKK Banner         KKK Hatred

Honestly, I am not certain about an answer. Even if I did not want Black Americans to live as second-class citizens, I cannot be sure that I would have made the decision that giving my life for the cause is the next step.

Maybe I am selfish. Maybe I only have slight concern for others, but have greater concern for my well-being. Maybe I am too afraid to look at myself closely enough to see the true answers inscribed in my heart.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The threat of injustice is a threat to liberty. African-Americans were not allowed the liberties of the United States because of Jim Crow laws in the South, which allowed some people to understand that if some people can be restricted from basic human liberties, then it is possible for all people to be restricted from these liberties. The desire for liberty and justice for all gave rise to a united voice declaring, “Give me liberty or give me death.” I believe it is my naivety withholding me from taking a similar stand. However, knowledge of the need to take this stand for the well-being of others is not a call that I can ignore. This call leads me to ask a few more question which I will use to conclude this reflection.

Is a life with freedoms that other people cannot enjoy ‘liberty’ or is that ‘privilege’? If a person has life, but does not have liberty, are they ‘living’? If a person is not ‘living’ then what about death is there to fear?

 

A Generation of Change – Melissa Parpart

Fisk Library-Education as a means of Action

Fisk Library-Education as a means of Action

Today we reached the final destination of our journey, the final stop on our own freedom ride, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Fisk University is a historically black university that claims esteemed alumni such as noted civil rights activists Diane Nash and John Lewis. I cannot think of a better conclusion to our personal travels through the southern civil rights movement. Our studies through both the class readings and our own experiences over the course of this trip have told the stories of young people –many our own age or younger—who faced danger, injury and even death in pursuit of justice for themselves and all Americans. As a young student myself I have had to seriously contemplate my own values and goals.

Is there a cause for which I could honestly see myself giving my own life?

College students from both southern and northern states answered this question with an affirmative ‘Yes’ with respect to the civil rights movement. Freedom riders trained to take verbal and physical beatings and respond without violence. They even prepared their own final wills and testaments before boarding the first buses of their journeys. Such a concept is unreal to me. I have always considered myself to have fairly humanitarian and generous values, but I still struggle with the idea of cause for which I would be willing to give my life. That is the ultimate form of bravery.

Our short visit to Fisk University today gave me a chance to really reflect on this entire experience. The most important figures of the civil rights movement were constituted of almost entirely young people around my own age. I am currently twenty-one years old. Martin Luther King Jr was in his twenties when he became the pastor of his own church, and shortly thereafter became the face of a movement that was known across the world. Emmett Till was only fourteen when he was killed in an act of bigotry and racist violence; his death would inspire thousands to take action against the societal values which led to his death. The bravery and sacrifices are difficult to comprehend because my generation has never faced such an injustice before, and certainly has never led such a movement to overcome that injustice.

Fisk University Memorial Chapel

Fisk University Memorial Chapel

I felt something special today while we wandered the campus at Fisk University. I am not sure if it was because I knew the history of the place, or the accomplishments of some of the notable alumni, but I felt a special energy in that place. At Washington and Lee, we have our own chapel. Lee Chapel is used for special events and first-year orientation activities. Unlike Lee Chapel, the Fisk University chapel—Fisk Memorial Chapel—gives a different impression. Rather than being grandiose for the purpose of impressing the viewer like the chapel-turned-museum I am familiar with, the Fisk Memorial Chapel felt as though it were filled with promise. I could easily imagine it to be packed with students, listening to encouraging sermons of equality during the age of legal segregation in America. Perhaps that is the difference. Students at Washington and Lee, in general, have not faced injustice to the level that the students of Fisk faced while Diane Nash and John Lewis were in attendance. I could easily imagine Fisk University as a place that could foster ideas of change and encourage action.

Fisk University Memorial Chapel-Front

Fisk University Memorial Chapel-Front

Over the course of this class experience, I have been both encouraged by the strength and perseverance of the human spirit, but also discouraged by the complacency of my own generation. Is such a unified and passionate movement of young people even possible anymore? I will not spend much time focusing on that question here, because I feel that my own prediction could not do justice to such a complex issue. However, I will conclude that a thorough education of the events of the civil rights movement could serve as both encouragement and instruction for the current generation of college-age people. Such an education teaches us to value the rights that we now take for granted—rights that people suffered in order to gain—as well as exemplifying the ability for any group of people to institute widespread and lasting change. With this knowledge, maybe my generation can be the next to change society as we know it today.