“Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”


Martin Luther King Jr peers through doorway What’s our answer to King’s question today?

Martin Luther King, Jr. included this question in a letter he wrote April 16, 1963, from jail in Birmingham, Alabama. King had been confined after arrest for his role in the Birmingham Campaign—a strategy of nonviolent direct action in protest of discrimination.

Known now as the Letter from Birmingham Jail, it was King’s lengthy response to “A Call for Unity,” a letter written by eight white clergy in the area and published in a local newspaper. They acknowledged social injustices, but called for an end to the demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, arguing that the courts and negotiation should be used instead. In his letter, King argued that unjust laws would never fall without direct action.

Yesterday, I heard part of the Letter, recited by Gwen Ifil, who gave the 24th annual MLK address at the University of Michigan. Ifil is host of Washington Week, co-anchor of PBS NewsHour, and author of “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”

King’s letter includes these words:

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”

King goes on to give a list of reasons why justice could no longer wait. I am father of a young child. You heard my son’s words yesterday (scroll down to read yesterday’s piece) and I was struck by these words:

We can no long wait, King said, “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’”

It’s almost a half-century since King wrote these words. What’s today’s answer to King’s questions?

Are these questions still relevant today?

What are the tough questions our children ask today about race? Tomorrow, I will share with you one my son asked me.

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