Reading Martin Luther King in Jail

Reading ML King, Jr in Jail: Inmate 00712398, Hennepin County ACF. By Steve Clemens. July 1, 2012
Because of my previous 10-day jail sentence for civil disobedience 10 years ago for protesting illegal indiscriminate weapons used in the early days of our (continuing) war on Afghanistan, I had some familiarity with the Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility (AKA “The Workhouse”) in Plymouth, MN. Knowing the jail had a library serviced by our county library system, I went to my local East Lake Library branch and made a request to a librarian several weeks before I was scheduled to report for my latest arrest for nonviolent civil resistance at Alliant Techsystems [former] headquarters.
I asked the local librarian if she would forward a request to the librarian who supplies books to the Workhouse so I could have something meaningful to read while locked up – knowing the jail only allows one to bring in a Bible. I gave her a list of books I was interested in which could last me for my 7 days. (With “good time” credit for 1/3 of my sentence, my 10 days would mean I could be released as early as 7 days.) Normally one makes a request from the jail library and the books are delivered the following week on the Tuesday when the librarian is present.
Since I was turning myself in on a Tuesday, knowing that the intake procedure might delay me from entering “general population” that same day, and would be released before the following Tuesday, I wrote down a list of books I thought would be germane to my stay: books by or about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While I already own 2 of the 3 large volumes of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy on America in the King years, Parting The Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge, I had only listened to abridged versions as audio books and wanted to take the time to delve deeper into the life and witness of one of America’s great, if flawed, prophets.
I have always been moved by MLK’s powerful “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” and have read and listened to his “Beyond Vietnam” and “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop” speeches (also known as “A Time To Break Silence” [1967] and “I See the Promised Land [1968]) many times yet continue to learn from them each time. What better material to read in jail other than the Letters of the Apostle Paul and other books of the Bible also written in jail, in exile, or on-the-run from the authorities?
So I was very pleased to have a guard awaken me from a very fitful sleep at 2:30 AM my first night with a stack of books: the final 2 volumes of Branch’s trilogy and two books of King’s writings, speeches, and interviews. Great timing since the jailers would not allow me to bring in my Bible since it was hard-covered! Go figure – all of the books the librarian had delivered to my cell, except one, were hard-covered and 3 of them were larger than my Bible. (The dressing room guard had told me I couldn’t have the Bible since it could be thrown off the third tier of the cellblock and injure someone. And I ended up on the first floor my whole stay.)
I don’t sleep well in jail – the noise, a bad back, and a terrible mattress on an unforgiving steel bunk all conspire together – so I was overjoyed that at least one public servant lived up to his job description and came through for this tax-payer. I dove into “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” [1963] first, but, as with all of King’s writings, it is better understood in its historical context. That is where Taylor Branch is so helpful. Reading about the Birmingham campaign and the sense of desperation, depression, and loneliness King felt by the lack of support from so many in America’s churches and synagogues gives me a better vantage point from which to read. His brilliant essay was virtually ignored until 5 or so months later when 4 young black girls were killed in the racist bombing of a Birmingham church.
But then to read in Branch’s final volume, At Canaan’s Edge, about how in the Selma campaign, two years later, clergy and other people of faith answered King’s plea to come to Selma in central Alabama in the aftermath of the bloody beating voting rights marchers received the day before gives one hope that the faith community is capable of responding. As Branch points out, you can’t tell the Dr. King story without also telling the stories of his compatriots (and they numbered in the thousands), his adversaries (many, many more), and the politicians, sheriffs, judges, and especially the despicable, duplicitous J. Edgar Hoover and most of his FBI.
The books are long and detailed – but they are best read not only in their historical context but also behind bars in a nation which still needs to confront what Dr. King called “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” As King so powerfully wrote in his Birmingham letter to clergy who criticized him for pushing “too fast”: “… direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community” and “… staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice” reminds me of the important continuing work my friends in the Occupy Homes MN group are doing right now to stand in solidarity with people losing homes through foreclosure to greedy banks.
There is room at the Workhouse for a lot more voices of conscience. Lord knows we need those voices and bodies now.

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