Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have written the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” back in 1963, but his urgent call demanding racial equality and justice for Black Americans still rings true today.
Tuesday on Capitol Hill, the powerful words from the Civil Rights Movement leader—killed by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968—were read aloud by a bipartisan, multiracial group of U.S. Senators. Among the guests watching and listening from the Senate gallery was the eldest son of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King.
“...I was in attendance as dad’s [letter] was read from the Senate floor for the first time in history,” Martin Luther King III wrote on his Instagram page. “As I heard his words echoed in the chamber I was reminded of the fierce urgency of now. …we can and must work to seize the urgency of the moment, but the only way to keep from going backward is to keep going forward, eternal vigilance is the price of success.”
Senator Doug Jones (D-AL), who won a special election in 2017 that was buoyed by significant support from Black women, hosted the commemorative event. He was joined by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), who each stood on the Senate floor to read excerpts of the letter, presented in its entirety.
Harris, the former Attorney General of California and now a Democratic candidate for President of the United States, said she was "honored" to read a portion of the letter which said, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
Among those also in attendance: Charles Steele, president/CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that Dr. King once led; the Rev. Leonard Hamlin, Sr., dean of the Washington National Cathedral; and lawmakers who included Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) chair, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Terri Sewell (D-AL).
King wrote the letter while in solitary confinement in an Alabama jail cell. Initially, he didn’t have a notepad so he scribbled on the edges of a newspaper, and even scraps of toilet paper.
He and fellow protestors had been detained for leading a series of nonviolent protests and boycotts in Birmingham, where the practices of segregation reigned in every walk of life.
In an open newspaper letter from eight white local clergymen, King was urged to abandon his efforts. The protests were called “unwise and untimely” and he was deemed an outside agitator.
In his seminal letter, King famously responded to their criticisms by writing: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The theologian also noted of America: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.“
Speaking on the Senate floor, Jones—a lawyer and former prosecutor who helped convict some of the white supremacists behind the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little black girls in 1963—spoke passionately of King’s courage and resolve.
The Senator also lamented the rise of hate in present-day America, which many critics attribute to the rhetoric of the Trump Administration. “While we have come so far and while we have made great progress in loosening the binds of racial justice we have not fully relieved the weight of our country’s history of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination,” Jones said.
The event honoring King took place on the same day that the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Hate Crimes and the Rise of White Nationalism.” Lawmakers examined the rise in hate crimes, the spread white identity ideology via social media and the impact white nationalist groups are having on American communities.