Legal Editor’s Column: MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail just as relevant today

Editor Column

Gary Ernest Grass, esq. , Legal Editor

In April 1963, civil rights activists launched the Birmingham desegregation campaign. After a little over a week, officials obtained a court order shutting down the protests. Martin Luther King was among those who defied the order and on Good Friday, protested, and was arrested and jailed. 

 That day, eight progressive white Alabama clergy wrote an open letter concerning the protests, asking blacks to stand down and adhere to the court order. A new, moderate mayor having just defeated civil rights archnemesis Bull Connor, they advocated for continued negotiations. Their call was published in a local newspaper and a copy was shared with King. His response, started in the paper’s margins and on scraps, was completed two days after Easter.

 That letter has been studied as a historical document, and used in schools a model of elegant and powerful writing. Most of all, though, it has been a vehicle through which King’s ideas have come to enlighten and inspire those seeking to improve the human condition.

 There can be no question that King’s prison epistle remains relevant today, but there is a spiritual and ideological fight regarding how his words should be applied. King has become one of the most intellectually abused figures in history, his words being used to support a raft of conclusions completely alien to King’s own thinking. Some have taken King’s ideas about natural law and distorted them to attack the very Voting Rights Act that King struggled for. You may even see a white supremacist alluding to King’s expressed frustration with moderates to show that his own immoderate position isn’t so bad.

 But if one approaches King’s letter honestly and critically, it can sharpen one’s thinking about the issues he addresses. Take King’s rebuke to the white clergymen who urged King to leave these issues to the locals, who were more familiar with the local politics. It would be striking today to hear a group of white men argue that King should stay out of an issue, black civil rights in Alabama, that did not concern him and which the white men understood better. King never says that the white men could not understand the black experience the way he could, although there is a subtext of his demonstrating this later in the letter. Rather he cites his organizational ties to Alabama, and his working closely with locals who understand the ground and invited him there. Then he turns to the idea that an interest in justice must be universal.    

 It is the last point that King is better known for, but it is interesting that he does not make only that argument. We sometimes hear from communities (or Jacob Blake’s family in Kenosha) for outside activists to stay away. Things like, “you come in, you mess up our plans, and then you leave, while we remain to suffer the backlash.” What happens in Birmingham is felt in Atlanta, but not as strongly as it is in Birmingham. Read King and you get the understanding that an interest in justice is not enough. King recognized the clergymen’s point and sought to show how he had tried to pursue his passion for change in a manner respectful of the local population. Read any part of King’s writing and you will find more nuance than is frequently acknowledged.   

 One does not have to read King directly, however, to feel his influence. Numerous times I have turned critical of social movements that seemed to go too far, demanding too much, too fast, and imposing too much disruption and harm on third parties. Before I could think too long on this, someone would write an essay on why the measures used were justified and compromise and delay intolerable. Sometimes I continued to believe that an action had gone too far, but more often than not I would be persuaded by these clear descendants of the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The spirit of King in these essays would keep me on the true course.

In recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Jan. 18, below are excerpts from his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

“…Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid…. 

…Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider… 

…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ … I guess 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, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; 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 cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; … 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 an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience…

…I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ 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…

…I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. … It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation…

…Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it. Consciously and unconsciously, he has been swept in by what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, he is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. Recognizing this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand public demonstrations. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sitins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist…”