I have continued to think about the relationship between our nation’s past and Adam Lanza’s murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School. On this particular morning, Christmas Eve, I thought about the touching scene in Spike Lee’s documentary film, 4 Little Girls, where Coretta Scott King reads the letter that her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed to the family of Denise McNair. Denise was one of four black girls killed when a bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Stanford University, which holds a substantial portion of the King papers, reveals the contents of the letter as it appears in Chapter 21 of King’s autobiography. The letter reads as follows:

CHRISTMAS LETTER TO THE FAMILY OF DENISE MCNAIR

Dear Mr. and Mrs. McNair:

Here in the midst of the Christmas season my thoughts have turned to you. This has been a difficult year for you. The coming Christmas, when the family bonds are normally more closely knit, makes the loss you have sustained even more painful. Yet, with the sad memories there are the memories of the good days when Denise was with you and your family. 

As you know, many of us are giving up our Christmas as a memorial for the great sacrifices made this year in the Freedom Struggle. I know there is nothing that can compensate for the vacant place in your family circle, but we did want to share a part of our sacrifice this year with you. Perhaps there is some small thing dear to your heart in which this gift can play a part.

I’m sure at any historical moment such a material sacrifice during Christmas would have been seen as an extraordinary memorial, but as I am thinking about this in the context of our times, it appears radical, spectacular, thoughtful, and moving. Can you imagine how such a sacrifice would be perceived in our time of “Black Friday” and 24 hour last-minute shopping “opportunities” before Christmas? I can only imagine what it would mean for those families to know that Americans were making a memorial of sacrifice as a tribute to their loss. People have made beautiful and loving tributes, but what I find so compelling about King’s gesture is that it called for withholding goods as opposed to giving them; it’s a model that I have not seen in our own times.

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