Monday, January 19, 2015

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

I have just been rereading, as is my custom every year on this holiday, the essay "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a wonderful essay, and a virtual textbook on constructing an argument and defending it with a combination of concrete examples and logical conclusions.

In this essay, Mr. King writes on the natural of laws, and how people can follow or not follow them: "Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest."

Much later in the essay, he adds: "It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather 'nonviolently' in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: 'The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.'"

What I get out of these two passages is how easy, to the point of being a subconscious decision, it can be to do or say something that is technically "correct" but use it in a way that hurts a person rather than helps that person. In our meeting last Friday the 16th with Nancy Miller, we were shown again and again that library staff members must be able to communicate and empathize with each other, and with all who interact with us. We must use our knowledge to help the community, and never to limit it.

The quotation from T. S. Eliot is from Murder in the Cathedral, a play that was first performed in 1935.

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