Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

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In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in Birmingham, Alabama, protesting racism and racial segregation in the city. He was arrested on Good Friday for demonstrating, which a circuit court judge had prohibited. While he was in solitary confinement, Dr. King wrote what is arguably the most important letter in American history. It was addressed to the white clergy of Birmingham, who had publicly criticized Dr. King for getting involved in a matter far from his home in Atlanta. Dr. King began drafting his responses on the very newspaper in which the eight white ministers had published their “call for unity.” According to the Washington Post, he continued writing on “scraps of paper, paper towels and slips of yellow legal paper smuggled into his cell.”

The justly famous letter – now known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – draws both from the early Christian tradition of letter writing (often from jails) and the African American preaching tradition. Following Paul’s strategy of writing epistles while incarcerated for his beliefs (the origin of several books in the New Testament), Dr. King reaches out to his fellow brethren of the clergy, appealing to them on the basis of their shared faith. At the same time, Dr. King draws on the rich oratory of the black church. While this letter was printed in a variety of publications and was therefore meant to be read, it bears reading aloud to hear the cadence of the prose.

Dr. King acknowledges his debt to many thinkers before him, among them Socrates, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, T.S. Eliot, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. A particular influence here and throughout the entire civil rights movement is Henry David Thoreau. When he addresses unjust laws and the responsibility of people of good conscience to protest such laws, Dr. King echoes Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” This essay, also known as “Civil Disobedience,” was composed after Thoreau spent one night in the Concord, Massachusetts, jail for failure to pay a poll tax. The tax would have gone, in part, to support the Mexican-American War, which Thoreau and other abolitionists believed was being waged to expand the practice of slavery in the United States. Thoreau was an ardent supporter of the abolitionist cause. In fact, his cabin at Walden Pond was sometimes used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau welcomed runaway slaves at his cabin during the day and took them to safe houses in Concord at night. Dr. King looked to Thoreau, among others, for inspiration for his theory of nonviolent direct action, a practice he outlines and defends in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” So closely linked are Thoreau’s essay and Dr. King’s letter that they have even been published together. Dr. King wrote in his autobiography:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement. . . . Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.

King’s major claim in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – that white moderates are standing idly by, telling black civil rights activists to “wait” – is a message that resonates today. In the wake of the Ferguson uprising and in the energy of #BlackLivesMatter, many in the white community have remained silent, and indeed many – both white and black civil rights leaders of an older generation – have criticized young activists for their seemingly aggressive, in-your-face protests. I can imagine Dr. King pushing back and telling the older whites and blacks, “’Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” Dr. King had been criticized by the white Birmingham clergy and by many others as being “extreme.” He willingly accepted this label, aligning himself with Jesus and other great reformers who King said could be seen as extremists. “[T]he question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be,” writes Dr. King. “Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

In one of the letter’s most powerful passages, Dr. King explains why African Americans cannot “wait.” The passage contains an extraordinary sentence, exceptional not only in its length but also in the power of its message and argument. Dr. King writes,

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

You’ll find it moving and inspiring to read Dr. King’s letter. You can do so online at the University of Pennsylvania’s African Studies Center website. If you want to add Dr. King’s works to your library, consider buying A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches. Two book-length considerations of Dr. King’s letter are also available: Jonathan Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and Jonathan Bass’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Image Credit: 1964 portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., public domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_King,_Jr..jpg.