“Wait! … has almost always meant ‘Never!’ We must come to see that justice too long delayed is justice denied,” intoned a young actor on the stage of Birmingham’s Alys Stephens Center. The strains of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings played softly in the background. More than 53 years had passed since Martin Luther King prepared this response to timid religious leaders while he was in Birmingham’s city jail appealing for delay of desegregation. His message was written on scraps of paper and smuggled to his stalwart followers in the movement to end segregation in the city ruthlessly run by Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor.
Dr. King’s words rang out with the measured sonority that marked his speeches at a 2016 commemoration on the MLK holiday. It would have been his 88th birthday had he not been gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis at the age of 39. The reading followed the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and a full-figured soprano performing the hymns Precious Lord, Take my Hand and Amazing Grace. Blacks and whites, together, sang along softly at the Sunday afternoon event titled “Reflect and Rejoice.”
Sitting in a red velvet seat in the half-occupied theater, I reflected on the recent history of race in America. Tremendous progress has been achieved in the last fifty years, but Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and, indeed, the nation’s voters have shown how much more needs to be done to reach the dream Dr. King envisioned on the National Mall.
Rejoicing was more difficult. Perhaps Dr. King was right when he said, “The arc of the universe is long, but bends toward justice.” But how long until we have justice? His answer in 1968, “Not long.” Already half a century has passed. When will justice arrive? Sometime in the 21st Century?
After the evening news featured MLK holiday celebrations from around the country, I sat in my comfortable home and remembered the day in 1963 when I read Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail in The Lantern, OSU’s student newspaper. I was at the student union cafeteria. Then, I had only a vague memory of the Montgomery bus boycott when I was in grade school. I recalled the young minister, Martin Luther King, as clever and savvy in achieving an improbable success. Yet I doubted that non-violence would be effective against the powerful racist institutions of the deep South.
My regard for Dr. King rose as I read his long letter that included references to Shadrach, Socrates, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. He was an intellectual, not an unsophisticated Southern Negro preacher as I had presumed with implicit prejudices. He was clearly an intellectual.
My friends Tim and Pete sat down for coffee and discussed the letter. We worried that his theory of non-violence, turning the other cheek, would get him lynched. Gandhi may have won India’s freedom with his boycott, but he was assassinated. Thoreau, the writer who popularized the concept of civil disobedience, was a philosopher who only spent one night in jail, but King was in real danger in Birmingham.
“Change is coming,” I said. “When those old, decrepit senators like Stennis and Russell pass away, a new generation will gain power in the New South, and they’ll start treating blacks right.” “All we need are a few key funerals,” I added with a smile. “And not just in the South.”
“Kennedy will pass his civil rights legislation in a few months, and all this will be ancient history by the time we put astronauts on the moon. ” said Tim. Pete and I nodded in agreement.
As I sat by the fire at home that evening and remembered those long ago days at OSU, I set the alarm on my iPhone early for the Unity Breakfast in the morning. I no longer wake up automatically at 6:00 am as I did before retirement.
After turning out the light, I thought of how much more difficult it’s been to achieve racial justice than it was to put Neil Armstrong on the moon. Armstrong’s footprints are on the moon, but we’ve not reached racial harmony. I also remembered the day King was assassinated in 1968. I was working in Baltimore and went to a scheduled meeting of city planners with an angry local activist who had just heard the news flash about Dr. King’s assassination. He wore a billowing, brightly patterned dashiki, carried a carved African walking stick and unleashed a stream of dire warnings about the coming revolution. “Beware! Baltimore will burn. Blood will flow!” he shouted thumping his stick on the floor for emphasis. He was right. Before we adjourned, sirens wailed like alley cats, plumes of black smoke rose, and, when I arrived at home, the television reported a long list of closings—offices, schools, and stores. My last sad thought before falling asleep all these years later: Baltimore burned again in 2016 after a young man named Freddie Gray died in a police van.
In the morning, the banner above the stage at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center said, “31st Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast.” I had lost count although I had helped organize the first breakfast the year the National Holiday was created. In a few years, attendance grew to 2,500-4,000 every year. Prior to my retirement, I coordinated 26 of these events with a large, fractious committee of civil rights organizations. Planning meetings were long, and no detail was too insignificant for an argument. Flowers on the tables? Seating on the dais? Which homeless shelter would receive surplus breakfasts? There were impromptu lectures about white privilege, hypocrisy, and underlying racism everywhere in American society. Earnest white ministers, a rabbi, and a priest exchanged quick glances and remained silent. I willed myself to not take any of it personally.
I encouraged invitations to guest speakers who would address current challenges in race relations, but most speakers were aging veterans of the civil rights movement. They told “war stories” and spoke knowingly about their friend Martin. Exceptions were Harry Belafonte, who drew the largest audience, and Governor Jim Folsom, Jr. who removed the Confederate Stars and Bars from the state house.
As I entered the exhibition hall for this year’s event, police dogs and their handlers were leaving after sweeping the hall for bombs. The scenes of last year’s chilling murders at a prayer meeting in Charleston flitted through my mind.
Inside was a sea of round tables and folding chairs, many already occupied. Beyond the tables two tiers of head tables, fronted with pleated cloth, were flanked by silver screens. On the wall above the head tables, Dr. King staring forward from a huge vinyl picture that fluttered slightly.
I bought my ticket, scanned the hall for the table with my former colleagues, and threaded my way through the tables, greeting some people with nods and others with hugs, some warm and heart-felt, others perfunctory. My former colleagues welcomed me to their table. My successor decided he could safely unburden himself of the frustrations about the event. He knew I would understand and not repeat them.
Long time Unity Breakfast moderator, Binnie Miles, began the meeting by announcing proudly that she was just a few minutes behind schedule. A minister took several minutes to invoke God’s blessing. As the head table was introduced, I counted the 53 honorees and dignitaries, each standing and waving to ripples of applause when Binnie called their names and titles. Then, Birmingham Mayor Bell, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, City Council President Austin, a county commissioner, a legislator, and others brought greetings. In most cases, their remarks were unprepared platitudes about the legacy of Dr. King. They also spoke of the importance of President Obama’s recognition of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Area as a National Monument, slyly implying that they played a key role in this achievement that’s been pursued for three decades. During this period, a plate of tepid eggs, two greasy strips of bacon, and a cold muffin arrived. Mercifully, servers circulated through the tables and poured hot coffee repeatedly.
The winners of the student essay contest on Dr. King were introduced along with their parents and teachers. The Parker High School ROTC color guard marched in as their leader counted cadence and planted the flag. A young girl sang the national anthem adding some of her own trills. When a Candle of Unity was lit, a rabbi offered a blessing in Hebrew. Next on the agenda was a musical interlude by the Unity Choir while a 12-year old girl in a white tutu performed an interpretive dance. Finally Binnie called upon the person to introduce the keynote speaker, and she did— at length.
By then it was nearly 9:00 am and a few people began to leave their seats and weave between the tables toward the exit. Like a cough in a crowd, the departures were contagious. Several followed the first to leave.
The keynote speaker reviewed his family tree, described every branch, and offered his accumulated wisdom of his eighty-one years for those of us eager to get on with our day. At last, there was a final benediction from a minister who shouted and screeched his long prayer as if he wanted to be sure God could heard it.
At 10:15 am, my successor said, “Next year, it’s got to be shorter.”
“Amen!” said everyone around the table in unison.
“Now the sacred anthem of the civil rights movement,” said Binnie as she crossed her arms and grasped the hands of those next to her. We did likewise. The choir began, “We shall overcome…” Soon the voices of two thousand people overpowered the choir. The vast hall filled with song, some lilting sopranos, some gruff old men, some off key. “Black and white, together…We shall overcome someday.” Each syllable was drawn out as we swayed to the hopeful words.
Outside the bright sunshine and a warm breeze joined with the glow in my heart. We will overcome someday, surely we will, I thought. I heard the hopeful refrain and realized I was still singing softly.
We shall overcome,
Black and white together,
We shall overcome, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome, someday.
I set aside my frustrations, embraced optimism, and re-enlisted. I was ready to soldier on for another year as a white man, maybe not as impatient as the African-Americans singing the second and third stanzas, but nonetheless eager for justice now. Justice no longer delayed and no longer denied.