It seems almost trite to say, but sometimes the truth – like evil – ends up being banal: words can be stronger than weapons in a drawn-out battle. Perhaps the man whose heart is pierced by a sword would disagree that the pen is mightier, and there are indeed some pens that spill worthless ink. But by and large, words are powerful currency in the marketplace of freedom.
We only have to look back over the last 50 years, five eventful decades filled with anger and jubilation, riot and reconciliation, trespass and redemption. The struggle that started well before Martin Luther King Jr. looked out upon the Mall and said “I Have A Dream” was marked with legendary words. Words of triumph. Words of fury. Words of defiance.
Words like those written by the great American Langston Hughes. This was a fierce, yet simple voice that spoke on behalf of the silent millions who saw their dreams deferred if not dashed on the rocks of a racist reality. Here is how he spoke to that reality:
“I too sing America/I am the darker brother/They send me to eat in the kitchen/When company comes/But I laugh/And eat well/And grow strong/Tomorrow/I’ll be at the table/When company comes/Nobody’ll dare/Say to me/‘Eat in the kitchen’ ” then/Besides/They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed/I, too, am America.”
Poets are easy to love, lawyers not so much. But here is the legal poetry that began to snap the chains of bondage, from Brown v. Board of Education:
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. … Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
And still, more voices, this time from a man who later, and sincerely, repented:
“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
George Wallace’s 1963 Inaugural Address was delivered on Jan. 14, 1963, a mere seven months before Dr. King gave his speech at the Mall. It is not unlikely that the words from Alabama’s governor gave impetus and fire to the reverend’s address. It is equally likely that they were in his mind as he wrote these words from a Birmingham jail cell:
“I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently understood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.”
More words. My father, who traveled south to Mississippi in 1967, the year before King was assassinated, kept a journal. These are his thoughts, after standing on the steps of a Hattiesburg courthouse trying to register black voters:
“In the course of the next few seconds, we were called ‘white niggers,’ ‘nigger lovers’ and a few other names unworthy to print. I was amazed by all of this and couldn’t help looking over at them. The expression on their faces mirrored an intense hatred of us personally, and of everything we stood for. Even the small children seemed to wish us dead. It made me feel ill to know that there were people in America who differed very little, in my judgment, from those who manned Auschwitz in 1944.”
Here is the apology of a Baptist minister, W.A. Criswell who once called desegregation “a denial of all that we believe in” but eventually realized that God is colorblind:
“(What happens if) down one of these aisles… comes a little girl … and she is black? The First Baptist Church of Dallas is now and forever a Philadelphian church of the open door. I don’t think that segregation could have been or was at any time intelligently, seriously supported by the Bible.”
And then, finally, the Dream speech, words that would forever change the way we would look at ourselves, even if they didn’t immediately change our hearts:
“I have a dream that some day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
It was a dream unrealized in King’s lifetime. A few months later, three young boys would be murdered in Philadelphia, Miss., for heeding the call of brotherhood, dumped in a ditch and made to pay for the sins of their elders.
Four years later, King would die at the hands of a man who thought he could stop the freedom train with a bullet.
But those words, and all of these words, were more powerful than any gun or water hose or flaming cross. Like the human spirit, they are eternal.
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