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February 13, 2013

Primus Mootry: Lincoln and Dr. King: Two giants of American history

Last Saturday my wife and I went to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Devoid of the usual blood and gore, special effects and T&A, it is a cinematic masterpiece.

Viewers are drawn into the Lincoln character, beautifully portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis, and drawn into the war room from which he kept a “hands-on” grip on Civil War battles. We grow with him in understanding the essential immorality of slavery. We age with him in those last, terribly stressful months before a bullet ended his life.

We become a fly on the wall in the bedroom where he argued and agonized with his wife as they mourned the loss of their youngest son and chafed at the idea of their eldest joining Union troops on the battlefield. We are transfixed by the Congressional arm-twisting, back-room deals, and pro- and anti-slavery pontificating that eventually led to the passage of the 13th Amendment. It is well worth seeing.

It is especially worth seeing during Black History Month because it directly and indirectly addresses the complexities of black history in America and the simultaneous “separateness”and “oneness” of black history and American history. These are themes I addressed in last week’s articles, and I continue here.

This time, I share with you excerpts from another masterpiece on the subject written 100 years after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which guaranteed freedom to 4 million black slaves (not, as most assume, The Emancipation Proclamation). The piece I refer to is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail.”

A bit of background: Dr. King had been called to Birmingham by a non-violent civil rights group to help the cause.  uring one of the marches, he was jailed. A group of white ministers publicly criticized him for coming to Birmingham, calling him an outside agitator. The letter (which should be read in its entirety by those who have not already done so) was his response.

Since his jailers would not give him any paper to write on, his “open letter”was scribbled in the margins of a newspaper that had been left in his jail cell. Here are a few excerpts:

“My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in Birmingham City, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. ... But since I feel you are men of genuine goodwill and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”

(He then gives his credentials as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of whose purposes was to respond to requests from affiliates such as the one in Birmingham. He also outlines the four steps of non-violent action: 1. collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2. negotiation; 3. self-purification; and 4. direct action.)

The facts:

“Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of the country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any city in this nation.”

(He goes to step 2: negotiations have failed. Then, step 3: a lengthy explanation of Negro frustrations with attempts at negotiation and reconciliation; now, step 4: direct action and its direct relationship with the first three steps.)

The reason for action:

“My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without legal and nonviolent pressure. ... We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. ... Wait has almost always meant “never.”

In its fullness, this letter has been studied by hundreds of scholars, grammarians, theologians, philosophers and millions of students, as well. None, to my knowledge, has been able to find a single fault in it. It is a masterpiece I hope you will read.

I have run out of space to go further with this. But one must wonder: If these moral giants of American History — Lincoln and Dr. King — were alive today, what would they be thinking? What would they be saying? What would they be doing? And what we think of them?

Have a nice day.

Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays.

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