It’s my job to know the ins and outs of language so that I can string words together on a daily basis in ways that are simple, clear, true and occasionally maybe even a little bit beautiful.
When you are so familiar with something, it’s easy to take it for granted.
That’s why I have such an appreciation for great writing, whether its author is a bestselling literary talent or a blogger I just added to my favorites list.
I know this kind of writing when I see it because it always makes me pause and say, “Wow, I forgot words could do this.”
On Thursday night I attended the local performance of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
After the lights went down, I was caught off guard by the first words that rang out through the auditorium.
My ears were pierced by the blares of sirens and the barks of dogs. Then those sounds gave way to the unwavering voice of Gov. George Wallace — “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 today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
I could not agree with Wallace’s words. To do so would require me to view several of the people sitting around me as intrinsically inferior, and my conscience won’t allow that even if the laws of the land still did.
However, I did feel myself drawn to the letter from the eight Alabama clergymen that Dr. King responded to from his cell in the Birmingham jail.
Their words supported obedience to court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education and encouraged honest and open negotiation of racial issues.
Their main concern was the series of demonstrations occurring in Birmingham. They considered such acts to be “unwise and untimely” and even “extreme.”
They wanted this battle to be fought in the courts, not in the streets.
As I tried to view their words through the lens of 1963 rather than 2013, their opinion seemed reasonable.
Without the hindsight of what those demonstrations would mean to the civil rights movement, it would be easy to question the logic in breaking some laws to encourage the enforcement of others.
At the very least, the letter from the clergymen was not racist on the surface of it. They seemed to be decent men writing from a standpoint of “genuine good will,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted before poking holes in their argument with a historic stroke of the pen.
Professional actor Cecil Washington recited King’s words with the conviction with which they were first formed.
The local men portraying the clergymen stepped forward throughout his performance to repeat portions of their letter that King addressed directly in his own.
Words that at first seemed reasonable sounded more and more hollow alongside statements such as, “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
One of the hallmarks of great writing is that it is timeless. A new generation must now repent “not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Fifty years before we Millennials would struggle with our own feelings towards the church we love and Christ died for, King expressed disappointment in pastors who “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
It pains me to think of how often I use my words carelessly. I expect to be judged more harshly for it because as a writer, I know what words can do.
Words are weapons. They can break a man’s heart and spirit without anyone ever touching his body.
Words have consequences. They can instill fear and hate, a powerful concoction that causes us to lash out while we are being poisoned from within.
Words can be deceptive. They make us feel better about ourselves when we should be ashamed.
Thankfully, words can also be used to heal, to instill hope, to let those we have hurt know that we are sorry and are now ready to share their pain.
As both Gov. Wallace and Dr. King understood, words are immortal.
Words are how we are remembered.