- By Levi Rickert
Opinion. Some 61 years after writing the Letter from Birmingham Jail, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are as applicable today as they were when he first penned them. The letter has been called one of the most important documents written during the civil rights era of the 1960s. The letter goes far beyond civil rights.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, I keep thinking about one passage that Dr. King wrote that needs to be injected into the national conversation in 2024.
“We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.”
This passage is so relevant today for three reasons.
First, we live in politically troubling times. The leading Republican presidential candidate, former president Donald Trump, blatantly echoes the words of Adolph Hitler to justify his immigration stance by saying immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country.” There has been pushback that Trump borrowed the line from Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric in his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, which set the principles behind Nazi Germany’s genocide of more than six million Jews.
Second, since October 7, 2023 when the radical Hamas perpetrated a surprise invasion on Israel that left over 1,300 innocent Israeli men, women, and children dead, antisemitism has spread like a wildfire in the United States. Incidents of antisemitism have surged 360% since October 7th, according to data reported by the Anti-Defamation League this past Thursday. There have been 3,283 antisemitic incidents in the U.S., including 60 physical assaults. It also counted 553 incidents of vandalism and 1,353 incidents of harassment.
Third, the reference by Dr. King’s about everything Hitler did was legal is one is one Americans should pay special attention in current times. Last Tuesday, a lawyer representing Trump argued in a Washington, D.C. court appeals court that a president of the United States is immune from criminal activity unless he or she is impeached and convicted by Congress. This argument is absurd and would give a former president the leeway to commit any crime against a political opponent. And I wonder how many Republicans will agree with the 100% immunity argument after Joe Biden has left office.
The absurdity of such thinking should give pause to every American who wants to avoid an autocratic government in the U.S. It is downright frightening.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should go way beyond a day off for tribal, federal, state, local governments, and schools. It should be a day of reflection to ponder the words of a great American–a black man–whose wisdom transcended the color of his skin, or his Baptist religious heritage.
Dr. King left behind words that are applicable and relevant today.
In his effort to bring justice and equality for all Americans, Dr. King noted the gross mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States, as he reflected on the origins of racism in America in his 1963 book, Why We Can't Wait. King wrote:
"Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it."
These words, which I read decades ago, still ring my ears today.
America lost a great man when his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis when Dr. King was only 39 years old. I was a child when he was assassinated, but his words have given me comfort in the work I have done in Indian Country. There have been times when I have been low in spirit and picked up one of Dr. King’s books on my bookshelf. I found inspiration to continue the work ahead.
So tomorrow, I urge you to read Dr. King’s words in Letter from Birmingham Jail, and think about how they apply today. I urge you to share them with others, and think about what you can do to make our country a better place. And remember, as Dr. King wisely wrote from jail: “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 coworkers with (the Creator).”
Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.
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