Letter from a Birmingham Jail

August 1, 2009

If you’ve never read Martin Luther King Jr. before, may I humbly suggest his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail?” Weighing in at just under 7,000 words, this memorable April 1963 essay manages to be simultaneously heart wrenching and uplifting. The essay, addressed to white Christian preachers, paints a striking picture of their indifference towards black suffering and oppression, and it’s bound to melt the heart of all but the most strident racist.

King lists the four components of nonviolent protest (fact gathering, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action), and makes the case forcefully for nonviolent protest. Citing Socrates the gadfly, he argues that nonviolent protests create tension, dramatizing the situation and thereby forcing the community to confront the issue instead of ignoring it.

Dr. King then repudiates the white’s tiresome call for King and his followers to “wait” for change. He does so by laying out a lengthy list of grievous injustices his people suffer daily, laying waste to the idea that anybody should “wait” under those awful circumstances. As his style is inimitable, I’ll just quote him directly…

… 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 county 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. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair …

King takes mainstream Christian churches to task, many of which were still segregated at the time, for dragging their feet on the most important civil rights, indeed human rights, issue of the time.

… I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular …

Yet King gives credit where it’s due, specifically naming several courageous whites (Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Brade, and Sarah Patton Boyle) with the moral and personal courage to stand tall beside their negro brothers in peaceful protest, suffering beatings and jail time right alongside them.

Probably an underappreciated result of Dr. King’s nonviolent protest movement, and one that he only briefly mentions in his essay, is the garnering of support from innumerable blacks who might have otherwise turned to racial and nationalistic movements. One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination too far to speculate what might have happened if King’s followers had chosen a more radical leader to follow.

King’s essay is powerful. Read it: Letter from a Birmingham Jail.