MLK's 'Letter From Birmingham Jail'

In college, I’d often read in the university library at night. Spent hours there. I used to pack a novel and a small snack. But schoolwork mostly. It was in this library I first read Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” written on April 16, 1963, a response to a public statement of caution issued by eight religious leaders of the South. King was 34 when he wrote it. I was 18 when I read it. The power of this letter, King's patience and reasoning, left a mark, like a tattoo on my consciousness.

What follows here are the lines from the letter that still serve as reminders for me now. I sometimes fail, but I work daily to honor King in my actions. So I need these lines. And I will take them to my grave.

“I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”

“…at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: 'How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?' The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust…. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

“To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Source: "Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]" - African Studies Center - University of Pennsylvania - http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.


Does Your Heart Flutter?

Traveling for me is typically an edifying experience. New York City, with its diversity, historical significance, and sounds, did not disappoint.

Last Saturday, after a long day of lines and air time, I and Julie—my brilliant wife and travel guide—took in the cold New York City air, fog, wet pavement, horns, and the enormous yellow line of taxis curbside, just outside baggage claim. We like big cities. The way they smell, the density, the rhythm, the countless avenues and streets. The neighborhoods. Downtowns. The languages understood by us or not. The countless stores and restaurants, delis, coffee shops, and museums. And the walking.

Flatiron District
We got in late, so we had time before our 8 O’clock show at The Stone only to grab a couple of appetizers and over-priced drinks at the hotel’s restaurant bar. Potted duck & foie gras with pistachios and drunken raisins. A plate of artisan cheeses. Alpha Tolman, Pawlet, and smokey blue. A vodka martini, dirty, for me. A cocktail with pear vodka, lime, bitters, and soda for Julie. We talked at length about our long taxi ride from JFK to SOHO. Our taxicab driver, driving slow, offered us a detailed tour through Brooklyn and provided insights on religious centers, the various boroughs, politics, police, and the “motherfuckers” on Wall Street. After the ride, I paid the cabdriver handsomely. We exchanged genuine smiles and shook hands. Wished each other well.

We went to The Stone to see Rudresh Mahanthappa, a New York-based alto sax player and composer. The Stone was a tiny place. An 800 square foot room at best with 25 chairs, a table at the door, and one bathroom shared by the audience and the musicians. Julie and I paid our $15 to get in and found seats. Mahanthappa walked in behind us with a bright smile and a gigantic overpacked backpack. Nothing fancy in his clothes. Modest. He stood a bit taller than me. A kind and gracious guy. Didn’t know it was him until he introduced himself to the woman at the door.

The Stone
As Mahanthappa, Dan Weiss, the drummer, and Rez Abbasi on guitar played their set, I was awed by their technical skill, creativity, and blending of sound from American funk, rock, jazz, and music from India and places I’ve not yet seen. And I was amazed at the audience. Young and old, from New York to Stockholm. People sitting on the floor. A lot of smiles. And me next to Julie with her eyes closed listening. The diversity in the sounds mirrored the diversity in the crowd. Perhaps in all of New York City. And the joy and peace I experienced that night was as close to the transcendent experience as Thoreau seemed to get to in nature. It seems my place is the city, around people and musicians. Artists. That night my Walden pond was The Stone.

After the show, we walked to Katz’s Deli on Houston Street on the lower east side. I had the knoblewurst on rye. Julie had matzo ball soup. We shared a soda. This was much more satisfying than the appetizers we shared earlier that night. As we ate, we talked about the music we heard and the path we’d take on our walk back to our hotel. I reveled at the beauty of the moment, eating simple food with music on my mind and appreciating Julie’s sophisticated presence and insight, and her gorgeous blue eyes and slightly crooked smile. We walked back to the hotel eager for Sunday’s explorations.

Central Park
On Sunday, we took the subway to Central Park and walked through it, admiring Belvedere Castle along the way, stopping at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to check out the Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Greek and Roman collections. The Cuneiform tablets, beads, amulets, gravestones, sculptures, weapons, armor. Items dating back thousands of years. Ancient languages and religions just as complex, diverse, and fascinating as they are today. Perhaps even more so than today. I was awed by the numerous civilizations and cultures that predated or existed in parallel with religions and traditions we know today (although greatly modified). Humans have an incredible imagination and sophistication.

Leaving the museum, I thought back to Mahanthappa’s set and his blending of modern American music and music from India. And how a museum like a city has a similar affect on me. But while we humans can be extremely creative, we can be brutal in war and uncaring in day-to-day life.

The Met
Just outside Central Park on Fifth Avenue on our way to see the Empire State building, I heard a guy yelling. Julie and I were at a stoplight waiting to cross. Julie was taking pictures. This guy was stalky, broad-shouldered, bearded. He had large uneven teeth. He wore what looked like a tracksuit, yellow, blue, and white. His cadence had a distinct rhythm. Aggressive. And he had an unlit cigarette.

“Let’s see if all you all rich people with your fancy clothes even cares,” he said. “Look at you taking pictures. With all your money and things.”

Grand Central Terminal
Then even louder and directed at me, ”Does your heart even fucking flutter?”

I tensed up and, keeping my hands at my side, made fists. I said nothing to the guy. Nor did I look back at him. But I listened. And stayed at the ready.

“Take a picture of me and this guy,” he said to Julie pointing at me.

“No,” Julie said as the light changed from red to green.

Anger hit me. But I calmed myself with a calculation. Better to walk away then to engage. I didn't know him. And he didn't know me. Julie and I crossed the street leaving the guy behind at the light. This man was having a bad time. And despite his belligerent, confrontational approach and abrasive language, he reminded me about the harsh reality of inequality in the city. He did me a service. Helped a random stranger understand. What struck me was he somehow knew I needed the reminder. That I was lucky to be traveling. And that birth was a lottery. I could’ve been him and him me.

Flatiron Building
As Julie and I took the long walk to the Empire State building that day we stopped at shops and diverted a bit. We saw the Chrysler Building, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, the New York Public Library, MOMA, Grand Central Terminal, and more. I reflected on the marvels of architecture and human ingenuity. And human progress. I thought about the night before, looking out the window of our hotel room. The skyline. The lights. But I also thought about the economic disparities in a city I found myself beginning to love. The extremely rich. And the desperately poor. All hard working. All human.

And while we had nice, elegant dinners in New York City—the oysters, the wine, the money spent—and while we admired the brilliant buildings and overwhelming lights in Time Square and other wonders of the city, I found that the one place that suited me most of all was The Stone, a modest 800 square foot venue that served no drinks or food, had no signage but the small print on the tinted front door, with nothing architecturally to speak of and graffiti on the outside wall. Listening to artists do their thing. Feeling the rhythm. Tapping my foot and fingers. Having Julie by my side with her eyes closed. Being around other people, young and old. Falling in love with a place and culture. 

Yes, Mister. It does flutter.

City Scene


Censoring Dianetics

In a short video making its way around the web currently, L. Ron Hubbard's great-grandson Jamie Dewolf tells a dark tale about the author of Dianetics and Scientology's founders. Nothing new is revealed really. But it got me thinking about my regrettable attempt to censor hubbard's books.

I worked a bookstore during my time in college. South Coast Plaza. a shopping mecca. Brentano's. It was a fine time for me. I worked with great people. All smarter than I was. I was exposed to the masters. I read novels, philosophy, poetry, books on science. The German greats. The Russians. The French. American writers. Greek. Italian. Irish. Mexican. Czech. I didn't mess around. I dreamed about having my own books shelved next to Tolstoy. So I'd be damned if any Harlequin romance novels or L. Ron Hubbard's books hit my shelves. There was no way in hell my store was going to expose the world to trash.

As the store's only "receiver," I was in a perfect position to make sure these books never reached the shelves. Nearly all the books in the store during my time there passed through my pompous hands. I worked the days shipments came in. And when the boxes of Harlequin novels arrived, with their red cut-out cardboard box displays included, I'd check them in, tear off the front covers, dump the rest in the trash. Then I'd send back expeditiously the front covers to the publisher to receive credit for the return. I'd do the same with Dianetics. Every time. In they came. Front covers off. Guts in the trash. Front covers to the publisher for credit. No one knew about this. I just made the call. I thought I was in a position to make it. I knew high art and science. And I wanted to protect the world.

Then in walked the store manager while I was tearing and dumping, minding my own business.

"What are you doing?" She said.

"Returning these books," I said. "They're crap. We shouldn’t sell this stuff."

Anger palpable. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

She then explained to me that on the one hand, we could be losing sales. On the other, and more importantly, I can't decide what a person should or shouldn't read. "Censoring Dianetics. God dammit."

Then it occurred to me. The irony. I was actually censoring books and ideas. Two things I held dear. It didn't matter that my principals were at odds with the material. I shouldn't be censoring. It was okay to engage people with differing opinions. To discuss things. But never should I bury them. If I had written a book and the "receiver" in a bookstore decided not to shelve my books near Tolstoy, I would go ballistic.

We then built those hideous cardboard displays for the romance novels, put them on the sales floor, and shelved Dianetics together. I even later sold a few of them. But I sold a lot of great books too.


“Pick It Light, Pick It Soft”

It’s not often an entire album leaves a mark, reorganizes the brain, and truly opens the mind. The kind of music in aggregate that makes even my toes remember the first time it played over a set of boom box speakers.

Long ago, working in a now disbanded music store, I discovered such an album. At the time, I was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and others. Then this guy with long, wavy black hair, a mustache, and hopeful brown eyes walked in. He looked a bit like Carlos Santana. He said he was working a bar in a cover band. He played contemporary songs and some “classics.” But he heard a song the day before. He didn’t know the name. Just the melody and a bit of lyric.

“How does it go?” I said.

“Pick it light, pick it soft,” he said. “Pick it light..... pick it soft.”

I ran “pick it light, pick it soft” in my head over and over again. Santana stood at the counter for a bit racking his brain. “No clue,” I said. “No clue.” The guy left.

It had a nice sound this “pick it light, pick it soft” as he sang it. So I ask my co-worker Tribe Called Quest. And like any true music aficionado, he knew exactly what the song was.

He went, “picket lines and picket signs, don't punish me with brutality.... it's marvin gaye." Then he walked away with what seemed like a nice groove in his head.

Naturally, I picked up the album and took it home that night. I listened to it over and over and over again. The seamless transitions between songs. The tone. The textured instrumentals and vocals. The unity of the album. The mood. The beauty. I was floored. I slept well that night and awoke a new man.

Today, the album sticks with me because it opened my mind to the world. To all the pain, misery, and injustice in it. And I learned what a well-made album is. Each time I listen to it now, I’m inevitably encouraged, inspired to work toward making change. Not only in my life. But in the lives of others. The album allows the world into my now opened mind. It reminds me that there are other people in this world who experience the same pain, love, joy, anger, and everything else, as I do. And that people come from different places. Harlem. Los Angeles. Mobile, Alabama. Hà Nội, Vietnam. And everywhere else. I realized that night long ago that I was part of a larger world. But I was 17 and told no one.

So here’s to Marvin now. I owe a lot to him.