On April 12, 1963, after being arrested for coordinating marches to end racial segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a in Birmingham, Ala., jail cell only a few miles from where I am typing this. Sometime after King’s arrest—no one can be sure when—an ally to the civil rights cause smuggled a copy of The Birmingham News into Dr. King’s cell. The newspaper contained, among other things, a letter signed by eight white clergymen calling for the “Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.”
After reading the letter, King sat down and penned what may be the seminal piece of writing in his storied career. While the “I Have a Dream” speech is more widely known, and the “Mountaintop” speech is more lyrical, when it comes to desperate urgency and a scorching, razor-sharp dismantling of every argument against the movement for freedom and equality, nothing that ever came from King’s mouth or hands can compare to A Letter From a Birmingham Jail (pdf).
In King’s inspired essay, he wrote that he was “disappointed with the white church and its leadership,” adding that: “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
King went on to say:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
“A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is as perfect a response to people trying to police black protest as one could ever hope to read or compose.
I am not Martin Luther King, Jr.
Although I have probably spent more hours in church pews than most people twice my age, I am not a theologian and no one who knows me would dare use the word “reverend” in the same sentence as my name.
But I imagine, when King sat in that jail cell putting white-hot pen to paper, razing the sanctimonious gradualism of Birmingham’s religious shuttlecocks, he felt the opposite of God’s love. I imagine he felt a combination of anger and loathing as he witnessed another attempt from that old dragon to cloud the path to liberty and justice for all with smoke and light disguised as fire.
Fifty-five years, 4 months and 16 days after King read the Birmingham clergymen’s “Call for Unity” letter, I imagine that King felt the same way I felt yesterday reading the Jersey Journal’s op-ed by faith leader, guest columnist and white man, the Rev. Alexander M. Santora, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Hoboken, NJ.
Titled: “There are Ways to Get Justice Without taking a Knee,” Santora’s brief essay was essentially a B movie-level reboot of the Birmingham pastors’ “Call for Unity.”
Santora began by stating his distaste for Donald Trump, before adding: “Yet, in principle, I agree with him. The U.S. flag deserves our respect because it is the one symbol that compels us to seek a more perfect union and inspires us to work for justice throughout our country.”
When the good reverend called the athletes “pampered” and “overpaid football players” carrying out an “ill-placed” protest,” I imagined Santora sitting in the multi-million dollar Catholic church over which he presides, sipping water from a golden chalice paid for by the tithes of his poor and middle-class Hoboken parishioners as he channeled the spirit of the eight pastors who wrote the Birmingham News explaining: “We are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
Santora went on to say that “failing to salute the flag distracts from the integrity of that cause and gives people reason to ignore it” and notes that the “overwhelming majority” of police are not racist, buying into the false premise that anyone, whether it is Black Lives Matter, NFL protesters or Colin Kaepernick himself, has ever insinuated that protesting police brutality means they are protesting police officers.
Before ending his egregious display of white-mannery, you know what Revered Pastor Father Santora did? (That question was posed to our white readers because our black readers know exactly what I’m about to say, as all white equivocators commit the same error.)
He invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name.
Of course he did.
In his new-millennium “Call for Unity” remake, Santora said that King brought all races and religions together for peaceful protests and the civil rights cause for which ultimately, Santora notes, King “gave his life.”
Please excuse me for a moment while I switch to all caps. I’m going to yell for a few seconds.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DID NOT GIVE HIS LIFE! HE WAS MURDERED BY WHITE SUPREMACISTS!
In the wake of Santora’s rose-colored peering into the historical rear-view mirror castigating the protests, doubting King’s love for his own fucking life in an attempt to make his illogical argument based solely on the notion that kneeling makes white people unhappy, there is a larger, more important point that Santora’s readers should be made aware of:
White people have never ever ever ever ever been on the right side of history when it comes to freedom and equality for non-whites.
They justified slaughtering the Native Americans and stealing their land. They believed slavery was ok and it would only take the bloodiest war in American history to end it. They legally justified lynching, segregation and Jim Crow for another hundred years. They ruled that it was ok to put Asian Americans in internment camps. They still suppress the right to vote.
And when it comes to black protest, 61 percent disagreed with the Freedom Riders in 1961 and 57 percent objected to sit-ins. Sixty percent of whites had an unfavorable opinion of the March on Washington in 1963. Seventy-four percent said “Negroes should stop demonstrations” in 1964. Martin Luther King had a 75 percent negative approval rating when he WAS MURDERED in 1968
But let’s see what gives Santora the right to lecture anyone on equality, justice or police brutality. It shouldn’t be hard because Santora writes a weekly column on faith for the Jersey Journal, so of course, given his self-righteous proclamations, I’m sure he has written about inequality more than a few times.
On March 18, 2018, the day Stephon Clark was killed, Santora wrote a column about a CNN report on the pope. On June 21, 2017, the day after Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted for the murder of Philando Castile, Santora penned a “Whimsical tour of the Muslim World.” Nothing on Trayvon Martin. Or Michael Brown. Then I found something:
Way back in 2014, in the wake of the death of Eric Garner, Santora wrote a letter saying ...
Hold on. I wish this was a lie.
I wish Alexander Santora didn’t write what almost sounds like a plagiarized version of the Birmingham pastors 55 years ago, when they wrote: “When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets” (emphasis added).
It’s almost impossible to believe, so I’ll just show you the title of Santora’s letter:
What’s more frustrating is that essays like Santora’s actually prove that Colin Kaepernick and the NFL protesters are doing the exact right thing. The entire point of kneeling during the National Anthem was to bring awareness to injustice and inequality. As wrong-headed as it was, Santora penned an entire essay about justice and inequality, then came to the conclusion that the protests were ineffective.
How, Reverend Sway?
Just as King admonished Birmingham’s clergy for deploring the demonstrations but “not expressing a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being,” 20,277 days after King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Santora again proved one recurring plot point:
When it comes to black protest and the methods for achieving freedom and equality, the absolute last person anyone should ever listen to is a white man.
People like Reverend Dr. Father Pastor Bishop Santora are what is wrong with America. There have always been Donald Trumps and there will likely always be a few. The real problem is coward charlatans disguised as men of faith pretending to care about what is good for the world when their only real concern is maintaining the status quo.
White supremacy persists not because of people wearing Nazi armbands and Ku Klux Klan hoods. It remains because there are millions of Alexander Santoras who are willing to protect it by policing the actions of black people with proclamations of respectability, whitewashed history and—if need be—actual police.
Santora either figured his privileged gold leaf-laced pulpit was a pedestal from which he could preach the gospel of “shut the fuck up, black people,” or his whiteness has left him so disassociated from a black reality that he thinks it’s ok to publicly argue that star-spangled inanimate objects and the feelings of the most privileged class in American society are worth more than the lives and future of black sons and daughters.
...In the name of Jesus.
But, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his jailhouse letter: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.”
There is not a single doubt in my mind that we will emerge victorious. Even with all the bullets, batons, battering rams, unjust laws, mobs, Molotov cocktails, dynamite and opinion editorials penned by moderate white managers of sprawling, billion-dollar religious franchises, they are still unable to vanquish us.
Because we are the fire. They are just smoke and light.
The NFL players are fighting for a righteous cause and Alexander Santora is on the wrong side of history as usual. Santora is not the same as the people who threw rocks at the Birmingham protesters. Santora is the crowd into which they disappeared. He is neither hot nor cold. Santora is simply one of the tepid, lukewarm compliers “more devoted to order than justice.”
Or, as Jesus’ homeboy, John would call him: