Thoughts from an Island Jail – Rattle the Bars

Several hundred of us are seated in rows in a comfortably warm auditorium this Sunday morning on St. Simon’s Island. We’ve been here since Friday afternoon for the Southern Lights conference. We’ve been listening and singing and talking about dismantling harmful hierarchies for three days.

On this day—the Sunday before America officially celebrates Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on the third Monday of each year—we are hearing excerpts from one of Dr. King’s most famous writings. A panel of six people take turns reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail from the front of the auditorium as images of Dr. King flash across the screens.

The third reader begins her section of the letter when out of nowhere . . . BOOM!!!

Every eye in the room looks toward the front. All six of the readers are still standing, although visibly rattled and confused.

What was that sound? Could it be . . . was it possibly. . . a gun shot?

I look toward Jeff. As are those around us, we too are disturbed. We all stay seated, awaiting word of what to do next.

Prior to the boom, we were all paying attention to Dr. King’s words, no doubt. We care, to be sure. The people in the room have a head for social justice.

We silently say that’s right when we hear his words from April 16, 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We nod our heads yes to his statement that, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

Yet how engaged are our hearts, on this once-quiet Sunday morning on a beautiful island in a room full of fellow white peers?

It’s easy to become complacent as a white person.

  • I fear nothing more than a fine if blue lights pull me over on I-65.
  • I’m never suspiciously followed through a store as I shop for clothes.
  • I don’t endure daily microaggressions as I journey through the world robed in white skin.

Even here on St. Simon’s Island when I hear a loud BOOM, it’s only for a split second that I wonder if an active shooter is among us. While anyone can be a target for gun violence, middle-age white women aren’t the normal mass targets.

Yet this BOOM did shake me up. It caught my attention. It made me wonder—deeper in my bones this time—how Dr. King and his family and other Black people and activists for civil rights felt when they were daily threatened with and too often experienced violence.

And how did they feel when that very real assassin’s bullet did boom its way through Dr. King’s body on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee?

The reader at the front of the room resumes her reading of Dr. King’s words. Everything is apparently okay after all.

But we are listening more closely now. The disruption of the loud noise has focused our attention.

Isn’t it strange how things change when our personal safety is threatened, even if only imagined and only temporarily?

It jangles the bars of our apathy.

At the letter’s conclusion, we each take individual unlit candles to the front of the room. One at a time we light our single candle from the flame of larger candles already burning. We place each candle around the others in a container, creating a beautiful, strong flickering of multiple points of light.

We then spread to create a giant human circle around the room, grabbing a hand and singing We Shall Overcome.

It’s poignant. It’s meaningful.

But it’s not enough. We know it.

We’re now admonished to go forth and get into “good trouble.” I think of my options. They’re all small candles.

  • Hold uncomfortable conversations.
  • Visit more civil rights sites (and revisit The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL?).
  • Speak up when I see/hear racism.
  • Buy goods from Black-owned businesses.
  • Read more books.
  • Vote responsibly.
  • Show up to support Black-sponsored events.
  • Be mindful of ways I unconsciously participate in propagating racist systems instead of choosing more intentional ways to eradicate them.

Individually, they are such small twinkles. But my one candle with your one candle and the next one candle can together create a blizzard of light.

And together we can create a lot of noise as we break free of our jail cells of powerlessness and resignation and apathy.

We never learn what caused the loud boom Sunday morning. Perhaps something to do with a speaker malfunction? We’ll likely never know, now that we’ve left the island.

On our way back to Alabama, I download the full version of Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (get it here). I read its entirety as Jeff drives. The section about “white moderates” stands out to me. Is Dr. King talking about me?


“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

And this:

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.”

Dr. King’s words are alive and powerful even today. What will we do with them? More than just quote them on Instagram?

I lack complete answers. But I do know this: We can each light our candle. Do our one thing.

And that can rattle the bars.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

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27 thoughts on “Thoughts from an Island Jail – Rattle the Bars

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      The big boom did take us all by surprise, for sure! I even had a dream the following night about an active shooter. My heart goes out to people who actually live these nightmares. 🙁

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I appreciate what you wrote at your blog, Terri. “Just Mercy” is also one of my favorites, and Bryan Stevenson is also one of my heroes! I’m glad you took the trip to Montgomery to visit the work that EJI is doing. It’s horrific to walk through the museum and the memorial and know that these atrocities actually happened. 🙁

  1. Corinne Rodrigues

    Racism comes in so many forms – we see that in our country all the time.
    It’s easy to get caught up in our own lives and forget how much people are suffering the consequences of bias and prejudice.
    Thank you for this reminder on MLK day, Lisa.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      You’re right, Corinne; it’s sad, but true, but racism does come in so many forms. It’s definitely not confined to America. Thank you for your heart to love all people everywhere.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It was quite horrifying in light of all the mass shootings we have in America. They’re unpredictable in where they’ll show up. I hate that my mind went to that thought first.

  2. Debbie- Dabble

    What an interesting post…. I appreciate your words that we need to do more to fight racism….My DIL is bi-racial and such a wonderful addition to our family….Thanks so much for stopping by!!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I know your candle does make a difference where you are, Ashley. Those of us down here have seen a lot of change but know there is still a lot of change left to make.

  3. Marsha

    Wow, Lisa, you had me sitting there with you in the seat, hearing that boom. Your points and quotes are like a gun shooting right at us (me), too. “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Probably, as a nation, this is where we are. Maybe we are a little past this, but not entirely.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      And it makes me wonder what am I still NOT seeing? I know I have blindspots; I just don’t know what they are. I agree with you that we have made some progress, thankfully!, but we still have a long way to go. We won’t give up.

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