By Jonathan Palmer
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
On April 16, 1963, having been arrested for the 13th time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., using the margins of a newspaper, scraps of paper smuggled in, and finally pads that were eventually allowed to be left with him, Dr. King changed the course of sentiment around the Civil Rights Movement. Over the course of 7000 words, he reflected back the criticism aimed at him and shifted the focus back to those who fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the effort, but still felt entitled enough to criticize him.
To understand the magnitude of this undertaking, we have to take a step back and look at the context that led to this missive. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. King, was coordinating the Birmingham nonviolent campaign with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). Beginning on April 3rd, they held coordinated marches and sit-ins designed to disrupt systems and draw attention to the racial injustice in the city. On April 10th, a Circuit Court Judge issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing,” which Dr. King and the other leaders said they would disobey. On April 12th, Dr. King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, also with the SCLC, alongside other marchers.
Dr. King, however, was treated differently from the others. He was thrown into solitary confinement in a dark cell with no mattress and no phone call and denied access to his attorneys and his wife, until President John F. Kennedy personally intervened. On the same day that he was arrested (ironically enough, Good Friday), a group of eight white clergy published a letter entitled “A Call For Unity” in the Birmingham News under the headline, “White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations.” In the letter, the clergy cautioned the “negro citizens” not to be fooled or drawn into action by “outsiders,” but rather to trust the systems and plead in courts and with city leaders for their rights. Essentially, “cast down your bucket where you are.”
Dr. King felt called to respond, to help them understand exactly how wrong they were. But, in true MLK fashion, he did it with all the compassion and grace that was lacking from their letter. He explained that, counter to their cautioning against direct action, people had a moral responsibility to nonviolently break unjust laws and take direct action instead of waiting for justice to come through the systems, potentially forever. In response to their referring to him as an outsider, he explained that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
But it is the next lines of his letter which are worth noting for our purpose here: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” What Dr. King was expressing was nothing less than that we are all connected, and our fates are intertwined; not just that which affects one affects all, but that we have a common interest together, a common path that unites us, binds us, and serves to strengthen us as we work together for the common good.
Dr. King’s message was one of unity that reveled in diversity. He was not advocating that we should all be the same, but rather we should all be equal, working together, joining together to fulfill our common purpose and, in doing so, support all of our individual goals. A rising tide lifts all boats, and by unifying our individual strengths and talents, we uplift all of our communities.
Nowhere is unity in diversity more apparent than in the Arts. Enter any art museum or gallery and you will find an eclectic mix of mediums, styles, and talents all on display, creating an overall more powerful experience for the patron and a stronger expression of creativity for the artist—a network of mutuality.
While much has changed in the nearly 60 years since Dr. King penned his letter, the specter of racism and racial violence still looms heavily over our country, halting progress, and portends continued violence within our country. We are in desperate need of efforts that can bring us together, unify us, and help us see the network of mutuality that is interwoven to the very fabric our society. The Arts can be that effort, that common ground that unites us while bringing together a myriad of styles, expressions, and tastes that resonate with all. While this notion may sound fanciful, farfetched, or simply a dream, it is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream, and that is what Dr. King aspired for our country.
Jonathan Palmer is Executive Director of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center (HQB), located in the Summit U/Old Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul. Founded in 1929 as a “light house of the community,” the HQB Center is an African-American non-profit social service organization that is open to all. Prior to HQB, Jonathan served as the Director of the Minneapolis Empowerment Zone (EZ), a federally-funded community renewal initiative through the Department of Housing and Urban Development administered by the City of Minneapolis. He serves on the board of directors of several nonprofit organizations, including MDI, the Summit University Planning Council, and the International Clan MacFarlane Society (Director of Gatherings).
Jonathan is a graduate of Morehouse College where he received his BA in Psychology with a minor in Theatre and is completing an MA in Public Affairs from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. In 2021, he received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s Outstanding Servant Leadership Award presented by the Saint Paul Roy Wilkins Chapter of the NAACP. Prior to that, in 2018, he received proclamations from the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners and the Mayor of the City of Saint Paul for a decade of service with HQB and restoring and preserving this historic community institution. Among his other awards are being named one of the inaugural Heroes of the Rondo Commemorative Plaza (2017) and the Sullivan Ballou award for his work on Project Superhero (2014).