A day to pause

Monday, January 17, 2011

As we commemorate Martin Luther King Day, here are some reflections on his gift for words:

Clarence B. Jones writes about collaborating on the draft of the “I Have a Dream” speech the night before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered it. Those words were nowhere in it. During the speech, King pushed the prepared text aside.

In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it. But then, no one I've ever met could improvise better. The speech went on to depart drastically from the draft I'd delivered, and I'll be the first to tell you that America is the better for it….

Some believe, though the facts are otherwise, that Martin was such a superlative writer that he never needed others to draft material for him. I understand that belief; fate made Martin a martyr and a unique American myth - and myths stand alone. But admitting that even this unequaled writer had people helping him hardly takes anything away.

Jeff Kunerth interviews two members of the audience for a commencement address given by King at Bethune-Cookman College in 1958:

Lloyd Johnson, one of about 250 students graduating that day, had never heard of Dr. King, the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church….

Johnson remembers that King didn't stay behind the podium, but stepped around it and addressed the students without any notes in his hand. He wore a black academic robe over a white shirt and patterned tie, his hair cut short, his mustache neatly trimmed.

Johnson was thinking about getting back to his dorm and packing his bags when King began to speak. His attention turned immediately to the man on the stage.

"When he opened his mouth, the moment he did that, we knew this was a different experience right then," Johnson said. "We knew we were in a different world."

In its illuminating chronology of the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis displays a replica of the Birmingham jail cell where King penned his famous letter on tissue paper. In his letter, a response to a statement by white Alabama church leaders suggesting that problems of racial inequity be addressed in the courts rather than the streets, King expresses his frustration with the church at some length, and advocates for the role of active, nonviolent protest. As he concludes he notes:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

Long hours, enduring words, and a day’s pause to reflect on both.