The youngest daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. returned Tuesday to the place in Birmingham where her father penned his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, one the most significant documents generated during the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The experience for Elder Bernice King was much different from what her father endured 50 years ago, as he was beaten and locked up while leading the challenge to Birmingham’s harsh segregation laws.
“Back then, the city of Birmingham tried to run my daddy out of town, and the governor didn’t want my daddy in Alabama, but today I have been welcomed,” King said, sharing the podium with Gov. Robert Bentley and with Mayor William. The three helped unveil a historic marker in front of the jail. And Tuesday night, King participated in a panel discussion on the letter, held at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church.
In 50 years, Birmingham has transformed from a majority white city where laws restricted blacks from drinking from the “white” water fountain or being served at downtown lunch counters . Today, the city is about 80 percent black, and blacks make up the majority on the city’s governing boards and agencies.
“The dream of Dr. King is unfolding here every day,” says Mayor Bell. “We’re not perfect, but we’re on the right path,” Bell told BlackAmericaweb.com.
In his 7,000-word letter, responding to white clergy in the city who questioned the civil rights protests, King challenged the good people to speak up and reject unjust laws. He chastised the clergy for their silence.
While America, the South and Birmingham have made progress over the years, Bernice King said there still should be a sense of urgency in addressing the needs of the masses.
“We still cannot wait. The wealth of blacks is still half that of whites. Blacks still are the last hired and first fired,” King said.
“We still cannot wait. We still have great health disparities. We still cannot wait. Blacks have half the good of whites and twice the bad. We still cannot wait, because we still have work to do,” she said.
Bernice King was only two weeks old when her father was locked up while leading a march on April 12, 1963, Good Friday.
If her birth had been delayed much longer, her father may not have been in Birmingham for the Good Friday march, and the letter that still today stirs racial consciousness may not have been written, she said.
Later Tuesday, at a church that was once the scene of a bombing that claimed the lives of four little girls in 1963, King joined five members of the clergy to talk about a response to a Letter From A Birmingham Jail.
When asked what the eight clergy who wrote a letter questioning the protests in 1963, Rev. Doug Carpenter said: “If the clergymen had put on their vestments and marched with the children, there’s no way Bull Conner would have put fire hoses on them.”
Carpenter was referring to the racist Birmingham police commissioner would order police dog attacks on children and have fire hoses sprayed on them as they marched for civil rights. Carpenter’s father, Episcopal Bishop Charles Carpenter, was one of the eight clergy to whom Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. responded in his letter.
Dr. Wilson Fallin Jr., a historian and president of the Birmingham Baptist-Easonian Bible College, said it was “utterly impossible” for the eight clergy to join in the protest, because most were part of Southern white Christianity.
“Southern white Christianity has not been an advocate of social change. It has supported the social structure,” Fallin said.
Rabbi Jonathan Miller challenged the racially mixed crowd to apply the letter in addressing issues today.
“I’ve learned to conduct my life like a historical lens is on us,” Miller said. “Look back and say, ‘what have we done? “ in the treatment of gay people, immigrants, and people in poverty, he said. “Fifty years from now, in 2063, can we measure ourselves by the letter and say how have we done?”
(Photo: Courtesy of Denise Stewart)