From the filthy, narrow confines of a Birmingham jail in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. … Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
As we celebrate Black History Month, I encourage each of you to read the text of Rev. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” The letter contains as many powerful and relevant messages today as in 1963.
While much progress has been made, the expanse of shocking events witnessed throughout 2020 and January 2021 sends a clear message that much work remains to be done. In fact, I will take it a step further. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t come to terms with the fact we are headed in a troubling direction.
By the measure of years, we have moved past the memory of historic and horrific events such as the lynching of more than 3,446 Black and 1,297 white Americans between 1882 and 1968, the 1955 murder of 14-year old Emmett Till and the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that took the lives of four little Black girls and injured more than 20 other people. Current events suggest we should invest resources toward a better understanding of our past to avoid the senseless deaths and acts of brutality that has resulted in lost lives, stolen treasure and the hopeful promise of people like Trayvon Martin, Botham Jean, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Like many, I watched in shock and disbelief at the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. I cannot pray away my belief that had I been introduced to any number of these people on Jan. 5, I would have thought it impossible for any of them to carry a rage that burns so hot it would lead them to participate in a destructive assault on our nation.
It is shattering to the spirit of America to believe the America that President Reagan once described as “The Shining City on a Hill” is now Exhibit No. 1 in the arrests and indictments of those who came to destroy the democracy they helped to create. The once peaceful protests led by Rev. King have in a few short years been replaced by the raging fires of anger, distrust and violence, and social media has shown us the most dangerous thing we now do is talk to each other. Still, we have within our reach the power and ability to at least start a healing.
Chief Justice Earl Warren once said he would begin each day by first reading the sports pages. “The sports page records man’s accomplishments, the front page speaks only of man’s failures.”
I can speak to the healing power of witnessing the accomplishments of those who served as the inspiration for my own athletic achievements.
To a Black kid born in a poor rural community in Oklahoma, I was able to see inspiration and hope in my own backyard watching the Selmon brothers move with grace and brilliance on both the Eufaula High School football field and the gridiron of the University of Oklahoma. Their undeniable talent gave me hope I might one day be able to forge my own future to play on Saturday for the Oklahoma Sooners.
No one can deny the hope and pride African Americans carry in their soul as they watch one of their own break a color barrier. Althea Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Hank Aaron, Serena Williams and Tiger Woods are several who have given rise to hope and healing. As barrier after barrier fall, all aspects of American life and liberty seem possible.
The elixir of healing and progress can be witnessed in the heavens when the scientific and mathematical genius of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson shine so brightly that it makes a “way” for Mae C. Jemison and Jeanette Epps as both rise to the top of NASA’s astronaut program.
In spite of 2020 and Jan. 6, America is still a special place. I remain hopeful my grandkids will walk into a future where the road has been widened to accommodate Americans of all creeds and colors to join as one body in the journey of America.
J.C. Watts is a Republican politician from Oklahoma and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a University of Oklahoma football star and became Oklahoma’s first African American to hold statewide office. He currently is the co-founder and chairman of the Black News Channel, the nation’s only provider of 24/7 cable news programming dedicated to covering the unique perspective of African American communities.