Monday, February 12, 2024

the last book I ever read (King: A Life by Jonathan Eig, excerpt twelve)

from King: A Life by Jonathan Eig:

On the day of King’s arrest, a group of eight white clergymen in Birmingham had issued a statement calling on Black citizens to “withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.” The statement continued: “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” Earlier in the year, most of the same white clergymen had written a statement encouraging white people in Birmingham to obey integration orders, declaring “no person’s freedom is safe unless every person’s freedom is equally protected.” The new statement appeared on page 2 of the April 13 edition of the Birmingham News, on the same page as a photo of King and Abernathy being shoved toward the paddy wagon.

The clergymen considered their message a plea for cooperation, moderation, and reason. But King, who read the statement under the weak glare of his jail cell’s lightbulb, became disturbed. Why did everyone keep telling Black people to wait? The Kennedys said wait. Birmingham’s mayor said wait. The reverend Billy Graham said wait. The Black professional class in Birmingham said wait. Editorial writers for The New York Times said wait. Give the government time to act, they all said; keep the peace, and trust the process. But for King and the people he felt called to lead, waiting signaled acceptance of an unjust plight. Waiting represented complicity. As King’s mind spun, he set to work. He wrote on the margins of the newspaper, and, when he ran out of room in the newspaper margins, he scribbled on napkins and toilet paper. Sometimes he used the paper in which his sandwiches had been wrapped.

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