“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.”—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), Letter From a Birmingham Jail (1963)
In 1963, eight white clergymen asked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to call off demonstrations planned in Birmingham, Ala., and wait on negotiations and the courts to compel change in time. Instead, King responded with his famous "Letter," containing many of his most eloquent words.
The “vitriolic words and actions of the bad people” issued from racists blocking change in this “most segregated city in America,” and “the appalling silence of good people” represented the inaction of those who, though knowing better, continued to acquiesce in a century of American apartheid—not unlike the eight clergymen.
Reading these words the other night, however, that paragraph took on a whole different meaning for me. The “vitriolic words and actions” have come from groups suddenly empowered, after the past election, to say and do things in the open that they would not have dared over the past few decades. The “appalling silence” has settled on people who should know better—people of the best intentions who, just a few days from a quadrennial transfer of power, keep hoping, daily evidence to the contrary, that the President-elect will stop making petty statements and creating an American oligarchy to match the one in Russia.
Now, Donald Trump, instead of inviting Rep. John Lewis to break bread, chooses to disregard the movement that gave rise to the congressman and Dr. King, to insult Lewis for his 30 years on Capitol Hill, and to exaggerate the problems in his district. (It's unlikely that he took seriously proposals made in a meeting today with Dr. King's son to expand restrictions on voting.)
Forget about a “creative psalm of brotherhood”—Trump can’t even maintain elementary norms of civility. If these norms can be broken, can the laws that moved America forward these last 50 years, past “the forces of social stagnation,” be far behind?
The image accompanying this quote, which I took a little over three years ago, comes, of course, from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in West Potomac Park. (The fact that a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, was chosen powerfully illustrates King’s message of freedom and brotherhood that transcends heritage and borders.) I’d tell Trump to visit the memorial some time, except that he’d probably treat the occasion as a photo op (much like the Trump Tower talk with Martin Luther King III today) rather than a learning experience.
More transformative would be reading a King biography or listening to a King speech. But that might compel a prolonged reflection that this 70-year-old man-child appears to have never engaged in throughout his adult life. Then again, as Dr. King wrote, “the time is always ripe to do right.”