My American Literature students are struck my many of Dr. King’s ideas in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” But one almost always gets their attention. It’s his reflection on the neutrality of time. In one part of the “Letter,” Dr. King remembers a white person writing to him, telling him it’s clear that Black people will get their rights one day. But that Dr. King’s timing was not good. Interesting. Dr. King reflects that there is nothing automatic about the passage of time that leads to justice. He calls time “neutral,” which obviously it is. He reminds his readers that justice only comes when people work and sacrifice for it. It does not happen automatically. Time must be used well. That is how justice comes. In fact, he suggests in this section of the “Letter” that those who want the racial status quo of 1963 to remain the same have used time better than those who want to change the racial status quo.
I am brought back to Dr. King’s conviction regarding the neutrality of time as I read people reflecting on the misery that was 2020 and the goodness they hope will be 2021. The year coming to an end, 2020, certainly has held serious suffering for many people. The Covid-19 pandemic and the police brutality causing the racial justice protests have been real and dreadful. The suffering of migrants all over the world, the slaughters in Syria and Yemen, all these have enabled deep suffering. But these awful realities did not come about because of some faulty nature in the year 2020.
The suffering so many in the world have experienced in 2020 has come about because of choices people have made. The dramatic suffering of migrants all over the world has come to a peak in 2020 because we humans still have deep fears of “the other.” Our nationalisms and our fears have stiffened borders and migration policies in many countries, causing immense suffering for those who have had to flee their homes. The suffering of so many from police brutality has its direct result in the training and culture in American police departments. Until American citizens demand civilian community control of police forces, until we find ways to raise and educate anti-racist young people, until we thoroughly re-think policing we will have police brutality. It isn’t just “in the air.” It results from our choices.
The Covid-19 pandemic is similar. While I doubt any single person deliberately chose to unleash the virus into humans, the reactions to it from country to country have been entirely the result of human choices. Because some countries, my own included, have incompetent, fearful, and arrogant leaders, the effect of the virus has been dramatically worse here than in many places. As of this writing, 1,763,133 people throughout the world have died from Covid-19. In the US, 333,007 have died of Covid-19. This is immense suffering. However, it didn’t have to be this bad. It is this bad because of human choices. Sometimes those choices were for inaction. But as we all know, not choosing is a choice.
Like many people, I hope that 2021 holds less sorrow than 2020. But it will only be so if we work to make it so. It is up to us all, as individuals and then as communities, to work to build more just and compassionate cities, countries, schools, and families. If we want an armed response every time we dial 9-1-1 then all we have to do is make the choice to not change our ideas about public safety. That choice will result in Black people dying at the hands of police officers. If we don’t find ways to effectively demand re-thinking and re-training our police departments, then we will see Black people dying at the hands of police officers.
If we want a more humane immigration system then we must work to build it– and to force those who will enact it — to act with more humanity.
2021 won’t be beautiful on its own. It will only be beautiful if we work to make it so. The choice truly is ours.
The photograph at the top of this blog is the first page of an early typed version of Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It was written in response to a letter in a Birmingham newspaper by several white clergymen. Dr. King’s “Letter” is an open letter response to their open letter to him. Their names are at the top of the typed version of his letter.