Each year, as we approach Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I take time to read some of the seminal documents Dr. King authored – to hear his own voice as a way of reminding us of his life’s work and legacy. Last year, I examined Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Written at a moment of extraordinary tension in our nation’s history, the 1963 letter responds to criticisms of nonviolent civil disobedience and describes the philosophical rationale, religious traditions, historical context and legal implications motivating his actions.
Re-reading the letter this week, a second equally compelling set of themes struck home. In addition to its expository power, the letter is in many ways a personal, intimate reflection. Dr. King recounts his anguish in explaining to his daughter that she will not be able to enter an amusement park. He describes his humiliation at the mistreatment of his wife and mother and how segregation “distorts the soul and damages the personality” of all involved.
Building on the work of Martin Buber and Reinhold Niebuhr, Dr. King ties personal pain back to its cause, emphasizing that the evil inflicted by segregation reflects a failure to see the uniqueness of each individual. This is the root evil that causes such extraordinary pain – the inability to see each person’s humanity. Citing Paul Tillich, he refers to the “awful estrangement” that segregation manifests.
This year, as every year, we should not just reflect on Dr. King’s legacy but build upon it. The failures that Dr. King describes contribute not only to legal segregation but also to the “estrangement” that creates racism and all forms of dehumanizing action. Understanding how we can see each person as an individual and, in so doing, embrace our common humanity would be a fitting way to build on Dr. King’s legacy in the coming year.
The SDSU community marches under a unified banner in the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade on Sunday, Jan. 20. Go here to find out how you can participate.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared at SDSU’s Open Air Theater in 1964, speaking about his faith in the American Dream.