Apr 25, 2013 - Issue 514

BlackCommentator.com: America on “Tip-Toe” Stance: Reflections of the Birmingham Jail Letter in the Aftermath of Boston - Between The Lines - By Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad, PhD - BC Columnist

We send our prayers to the people of Boston, and the victims, of what our President called an “act of terror,” after two bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon. Tragedy, like terrorism, is colorless. We should have compassion for any and all persons in times of tragedy, and we should rebuke terrorism, in all its forms. The evil behind such an act, or those responsible for any acts of terror, should be brought to justice. With God’s permission, they will be brought to justice, for no one has a greater sense of justice than God. But now, the nation has again been reminded of its vulnerabilities in the return of the uncertainties that accompany random acts of terror. Each act “changes our lives” forever, changes how we socialize, changes how we congregate and changes how we see the world.

Another “new normal” in a world that is not so normal anymore.

Our compassion for and empathy with those directly affected by this sort of tragedy is a sensible, rational, humane and socially responsible response, but it doesn’t change the sobering realities of our new normality.  We now have to be overly concerned about where we are and who is around us. As irrational terrorism has been racialized over the past twelve years (since 9/11/2001), xenophobia only foments our suspicions. America is back on “‘tip-toe stance,’ never knowing what to expect next, and is now plagued with inner fears and outer resentment,” to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tip-Toe Stance is a state of alarm, or anticipation, that hostility is a social constant and danger situations are always imminent. It is a quote from another time, in another irrational moment in our nation’s history. This lexicon is not specific to the events of Boston. 

The Boston bombing only reminds us of a time when the national conscience had to be pricked and compassion had to be massaged to emit empathy (or sympathy) for innocent victims of terrorism in America. The lexicon associated with eminent fears amid imminent dangers was introduced into the societal conscience by letter, a letter now considered one of the ten most significant documents of the 20th Century. The original subject of my column this week was on the importance of a single letter. In deference to the tragedies of the moment, we can draw parallels around tragedy and terrorism in America that have significance in understanding why we all must be compassionate and vigilant in stemming irrational terrorism in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy. Why? Because it hasn’t always been the case in America. Not for everyone.

Fifty years ago this week (April 16th), Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. was in the midst of what was considered his most controversial direct action protest engagement, in Birmingham, Alabama. A boycott and protest marches were called for Easter week, to protest the treatment of black customers, the failure to hire black clerks, and maintaining segregated restrooms and lunch counters nearly nine years after the Brown decision. Easter, except for Christmas, was (is) the biggest shopping “holiday” season of the year. King was attacked by white clergy as being an egregious outside agitator who was being impatient and unreasonable in his demands. They also questioned why King targeted Birmingham when he lived in Atlanta. Birmingham was the largest city in Alabama, with the largest black population. Birmingham was also “the Capital of Southern Segregation,” having had more unsolved bombings than any city in America. Because of this heinous practice of terrorizing black residents, the city became known as “Bombingham.”  I would encourage anyone who has never read this letter, to read it, absorb it and live by it.

The irony here is that fifty years later, bombings are considered “acts of terror.” If it is an act of terror in 2013, it was an act of terror in 1963. Times have changed - but the act, and the impact of the act, hasn’t. A bombing is a bombing, terror is terror and tragedy is tragedy.

King was being criticized for leading the protests from afar, and for putting women and children in “harm’s way.” Harm’s way was Birmingham’s Chief of Police and Public Safety Director, “Bull” Connor, who used all the force of the local government to disrupt the boycotts. The youth joined the protests, often ditching school to join the marches, and they were locked up. Connor arrested so many of them that the jails were completely full. Amid these sharp criticisms, King, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth joined the protest lines, and thus were arrested on Good Friday. King’s arrest brought the protests to the nation’s attention.

While in jail, on April 12th, a full page ad was taken out by white pastors in the Birmingham newspaper issuing a “Call To Unity,” condemning King’s actions. King responded on April 16th, with his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” (also known as “The Negro Is Your Brother”), questioning his brethren’s support of unjust law and advocating of gradualism. Dr. King sensitized them to the state of terror in which the Negro lived in America, and appealed to their sense of Christ-like justice. It was a significant moment in American religion, a test of sincerity, and an exposť in Christian hypocrisy, as to why the church, and the broader society had little (or no) compassion, or empathy, for what was happening to the Negro in the South.

King’s appeal rallied ecumenical support in the North after the letter was published in several Northern papers. However, despite a growing movement invigorated by the youth of Birmingham - that included the March on Washington - the terror continued. Less than three months after the March on Washington, five months after King wrote his letter, the world was shocked by the same sense of indiscriminate evil that was demonstrated in Boston this week.

This year, September 15th to be exact, will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the most egregious act of the movement, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four innocent little girls were killed. The runners and spectators of the Boston Marathon who were killed and injured, were just as innocent, their deaths senseless. The outrage is not muted.

We, as a society, can never again allow our compassion and our empathy to be muted and dictated by our fears. Acts of terror betray us all. Not to acknowledge them, wherever they occur, deny our sense of humanity and civility.

Dr. Martin Luther King understood, fifty years ago, what we should all understand now, in this moment of senseless tragedy. We shouldn’t just pray for the families impacted. We should all join the call for justice to be served. Anything less is a scar on all  our consciences and an indictment on our sense of collective humanity. And we shouldn’t indict any segment of society before all the facts come out - for injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. King said that, too - in the same letter. Wherever injustice is present, justice must also be present.

We need to pray for us all.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad, is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics In 21st Century Popular Culture and Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. His Website is AnthonySamad.com. Twitter @dranthonysamad. Click here to contact Dr. Samad.