The year was 1963. I was 14 years old. So it could not have been that I was unaware of what was going on in my city, but more likely that I was sheltered from it. I’m referring to two events: the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and incarcerated in the Birmingham jail; and in that same year — Sunday, September 13 — the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, taking the lives of four little girls as they left their Sunday School class to go into the sanctuary.
It was a white supremacist terrorist bombing, just before 11 o’clock, when instead of rising to begin prayers, the congregation was knocked to the ground. As the bomb exploded under the steps of the church, the congregants sought safety under the pews and shielded each other from falling debris.
Five months earlier, on April 12, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested with SCLC activists Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday wondered what in the world the future might hold.
As a child, I would proudly sing a song I learned in school, “Birmingham’s My Home. In the days of 1963, I was not so proud that Birmingham, Alabama was my home. Today, I feel deep shame to admit that even at age 14, I had no idea what was happening or why it was happening. To be sure, I was not yet “woke” in any sense of the word.
While incarcerated, Dr. King wrote a letter. Some of his most eloquent, scorching, but hopeful words were penned during his time in the Birmingham Jail. These words he wrote from there are quite striking to me:
“. . . in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
How is it that we have not yet seen the “radiant stars of love and brotherhood” [and sisterhood] “shining over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty?” Why does the struggle for racial justice still play out in the streets of this nation’s cities as the oppressed still cry out against the injustice that continues to hold them in chains?
I will not attempt to answer those unanswerable questions. I will point out the mountains that still stand ominously before us. We cannot move those mountains, it seems, as they loom over us — immense, towering, formidable, oppressive. The rocks, crags and peaks of them looking like peaceful protests by persons crying out for freedom in June, white supremacists violently storming the United States Capitol just 12 days ago, and the terrifying Coronavirus that still threatens after so many months.
How will we see the radiant stars of beloved community, of hope, of peace when we cannot move those mountains? Words cannot move mountains, but words can give us the strength and courage to try. And so I leave you with Dr. King’s words as we honor him on this day:
“Out of the mountain of despair, the stone of hope.”*
I wish for you radiant stars of love, the sunlight of hope that is new every morning, and the glistening wings of peace to guide your way.
*Dr. King delivered this line during his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. It now appears is one of the most prominently featured quotes on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington.