Martin Luther King Jr. Day always coincides with the beginning of the spring semester at my college. So, over the weekend that includes the holiday, I usually ask my students to read King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Ordinarily a few of them have seen it before, but it's new to most, and for many it's a bit of an eye-opener.
King went to Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to support non-violent protests of the city's pervasive racism and was promptly thrown in jail for parading without a permit. Eight white clergymen published a letter saying that, of course, they agreed with King that all men deserve equality and that, eventually, equality and freedom will come.
But they criticized King's methods, arguing that reform should occur through negotiation and in the courts, not as the result of public protests. They asked, essentially, What's the hurry?
"Letter from Birmingham Jail" is King's eloquent answer.
To most of us, slavery is an abstraction, a brutal element of an economic system that was abolished a century before King marched in Birmingham. But I want my students to understand that, in fact, King was battling a more insidious, but no less destructive, institution, a systematic and unequal segregation that persisted in much of America well into the lifetimes of citizens still alive today.
Here's an example: King tells the clergymen who objected to his methods that maybe they'll understand the urgency of his mission "when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no hotel will accept you."
This complaint, among a long list, in King's "Letter," of worse injustices suffered by American blacks, reminds me of The Negro Travelers' Green Book, a travel guide published by Victor H. Green from 1936 to 1964.
Green saw a need for a guide listing hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses that "negroes" could patronize "without embarrassment," clearly a euphemism for more serious insults and threats that blacks endured under Jim Crow.
The 1949 edition says, "The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted and there are numerous publications that give the gentile whites all kinds of information." And the 1956 edition understates: "The White has had no difficulties in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different."
Perusing these guides is instructive: I don't know how far the Green Book was able to penetrate local markets, but the 1949 edition lists only eight restaurants and two hotels in Corpus Christi, Texas, my hometown, that traveling blacks could use "without embarrassment." One of the hotels is the Y.M.C.A.
By 1956, only six restaurants are listed. And the Green Book can vouch only for Horace Crecy's Tourist Home as a place where a negro traveler can get a good night's sleep.
No wonder King and other blacks sometimes wound up spending nights in their cars.
Protests of injustices like these brought King to Birmingham, landed him in jail, and eventually cost him his life. His "Letter" makes for good reading every year around his birthday because it reminds us of the persistent nature of racism.
Slavery is a cancer; you either eradicate it or it kills you. But the kind of racism that King fought is a chronic disease that goes into remission but is difficult to cure.
Things have changed a lot since then, but "Letter from Birmingham Jail" reminds us of how recently the battle for racial justice was still being waged in our culture.
Sometimes political entities and other institutions have issued apologies to blacks for their participation in the injustices that King died to eliminate. In general, apologies feel like too little, too late.
As a white man, it's not my place to say whether apologies are called for.
But the most valuable thing we can do is not to apologize, but to remember.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)