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Jan. 20, 2011

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

In January 1963, eight white Alabama clergymen — Catholic, Protestant and Jewish — issued “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” The letter, published in a Montgomery area newspaper, acknowledged the plight of black people, yet dissuaded them from their peaceful protests.

The signatories commended the police for maintaining “order” while encouraging blacks to pursue “proper channels” in their quest for civil rights. This public statement from bishops, pastors, moderators and a rabbi served to discourage their Caucasian brethren from supporting black neighbors asserting fundamental human rights.

Montgomery was a nice enough place to live and raise a family in the early 1960s — if you were white. Rigid segregation in schools, stores, movie theaters and restaurants prevailed. Skin color dictated the caliber of school you attended, the neighborhood in which you lived and the social currency you held.

Non-violent protests and acts of civil disobedience persisted in the face of unyielding racism. Activists endured verbal abuse. Physical assaults were carried out by water cannons, attack dogs and police wielding clubs.

In April 1963, the religious leaders issued a second letter, “A Call for Unity.” The signatories, possessing enormous societal influence, criticized demonstrations “directed and led in part by outsiders” — a reference to Martin Luther King Jr., who descended on Montgomery to support the movement for racial equality.

King’s response arrived in his April 12, 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The eloquently written epistle addressed his fellow clergy. King’s letter offered a passionate, well-articulated explanation for his actions.

Earning a Ph.D. at Boston University, King could have easily settled in the more liberal — though still imperfect — North. He instead chose to take on the Jim Crow South with its legally codified segregation. King assumed the gauntlet, dodging death threats, FBI investigations, wire taps and the bombing of his home, pressing for incremental steps to dislodge the cement segregating lunch counters, buses, schools and theaters.

Sitting in a dank Alabaman jail, King read, prayed and reflected before resolving to pen a response to his fellow clergymen. He was not alone. He shared incarceration with several hundred protesters. King drew strength from those who, like him, recognized the inherent injustice of denying access to individuals simply because of skin color.

King’s letter challenging people to question injustices resonates today. I offer several quotes from King’s cellblock communiqué.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Living in a somewhat privileged perch that is Williston, I reflect on individuals and families who frequent Williston’s Community Food Shelf. Working neighbors, single parents and seniors among us make the pilgrimage, stopping in for a bag of groceries. Choosing between sustenance and the heating bill is a decision no one should have to make. I will never forget the Williston youth who, years ago, during a World of Difference presentation at Williston Central School, acknowledged his feeling that it was “hardest” socially for the kids in town whose parents lacked resources.

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny

Is our future economic well-being linked to whether we create pathways to financial security for the less affluent among us? I think so. An educated, productive, healthy populace seems our best defense in a world of shifting geopolitics.

Privileged groups seldom give up their privilege voluntarily

Vermont faces a deep, dark, cavernous budgetary shortfall; our federal government runs on a deficit. Just as we must consider reductions in government services, we must reevaluate our tax structure. Eliminating tax credits and loopholes for the most wealthy is not about freedom, it’s about fairness.

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will

King’s statement reminds us it is not enough to talk about inequality. We must confront inequities where we find them — with our actions and our pocketbooks.

Forty-eight years later, true equality remains elusive for many on the economic periphery. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter retains its relevance. We are the addressees.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com or editor@willistonobserver.com.