King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail in April 1963, almost five years, to the day, before his assassination. The letter remains resonant for its poetry (“injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) as well as for what’s implied in King’s very act of writing it: A letter can matter. Language is a powerful, and essential, element in all battles—violent and non-violent alike. Obama knows this now, and Dr. King knew it then: their words would be heard. And King’s vision—that we are all interconnected—is one that has perhaps even more meaning now than it did then.
It seems that King meant, Americans are all connected. But we could read his words as easily to mean, everyone is connected. We see this in Haiti now. We see there is no room not to act. What would King say, looking on the devastation.
Here is the key passage from the Letter:
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Or, perhaps, without its bounds.
“Interrelatedness” is an excellent word; it’s so literary. And today it is directly applicable to what’s happening in Haiti. There is no way to consider what’s occurred there as distinct from our lives here (wherever “here” may be, but uniquely here in America. The loss is devastating, and it is critical not only to attempt to understand it but also to help relieve it. In this, we are an extension of King’s vision: that the game of progress is not about waiting for what’s right to arrive to all places, and to all peoples, but rather about being pro-active. Demand justice. Fight for it.
King’s Letter, barely less than seven thousand words long (which is long), moves us because it demonstrates the extent to which MLK was uniquely proactive. The man never let a minute pass wasted. In a jail cell, he composed a symphony. He realized the time was right to reinforce the “inescapable network of mutuality,” a concept worth returning to now.
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Haitians will write more, and their words will collect another set of experiences from these past days. Madison Smartt Bell’s brilliant review of essential Haitian literature in The New York Review of Books, “A Hidden Haitian World,” has been referenced in other recent pieces on Haiti, and is worth reading. It connects the Haitians future with aspects of King’s vision via connecting their future, explicitly, to the power of their words. Bell wrote:
Haitians carry an enormous burden of history, part of it proud and part of it atrocious, and both parts often inextricably mingled.
And he concludes:
Once upon a time, the Haitian revolutionary heroes were able to redress great wrongs by force of arms, but that time is long gone; when Trujillo’s death squads began harvesting heads along the Massacre River, that time had already passed. What Haitians have to help them now is the great force of their spirit, the extraordinary power of their words.
This sounds familiar. And hopeful.