Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who requires no introduction, eloquently described the plight of African Americans, as well as the hope he had for a future of equality in the United States. His soaring rhetoric and elaborate prose became the rally cry for an entire generation of African Americans in pursuit of the natural rights they had been deprived of for hundreds of years. During his time as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King continually instructed his affiliates to engage in nonviolent, coordinated civil disobedience in order to create a conversation about the injustices taking place in the United States. While in a prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, the epicenter of racial injustice, King, usually uninterested and unable to respond to critics, breaks precedent by responding to a group of white clergymen who were critical of the protests taking place across the country. His letter, distinct for its scathing review of moderates and white Christians, has shaped the Civil Rights fight since King put pen to paper in April of 1963.
The arrest of, and the subsequent writing by, King came at a critical point in the Civil Rights movement. King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was in Birmingham, Alabama, to lead non-violent protests. As Birmingham was known as “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” King and his affiliates were determined to spark a conversation about racial discrimination through economic boycotts, sit ins, and public marches. These demonstrations led to his arrest and the arrest of many other protesters. They also led a group of white clergymen to pen a letter stating their dismay with King’s tactics. These clergymen believed King was an outsider, bringing agitation and strife with him. They also believed that, rather than staging protests and demonstrations, King should rely on local negotiation as a means to ending racial discrimination. Finally, the clergyman stated that time would bring about justice, and that King and his followers should be patient and not rush progress. King, disappointed with his fellow clergymen, penned a point for point response in the margins of newspapers and organized his thoughts from his small cell.
In his letter, King addresses the major concerns of the clergymen, while also staking out his reasoning for acting the way he did. King states he went to Birmingham because “injustice is here,” and compared his pilgrimage to several biblical figures who also traveled the world carrying the word of God. Like the Apostle Paul who left his home to carry the “gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world,” King is carrying his creed of freedom across the United States. He also refutes the title of “outsider” by stating that, in actuality, the different communities were interrelated in their quest for justice. King famously states that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that he could not ignore the plight of Birmingham residents of color while fighting for civil rights in Atlanta.
King goes on to explain why immediate action was required, despite the clergy’s insistence on using negotiation as a tactic for gaining civil rights. On this point, King actually agrees with the clergy, stating that the purpose of direct action is to bring about negotiations. A single gain in civil rights was not made without “determined legal and nonviolent pressure” on the ruling class to reform its practices. Due to the fact that “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily,” protestors must use nonviolent action in order to create a dialogue concerning the tensions found in specific communities.
The clergymen also criticized Martin Luther King and his affiliates for urging their members to break laws in order to achieve their goals. While King calls this a “legitimate concern,” he refutes their disdain by differentiating between just laws and unjust laws. Just laws, King pontificates, is “a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” On the other hand, King denounces unjust laws as “a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” King states that the Jim Crow laws and segregationist laws in the south “distorts the soul and damages the personality,” which is cause enough to disobey them. King goes on further in his defense of breaking unjust laws, stating that lawmakers who were undemocratically elected created these laws. Since the African American population was unable to vote for their representatives or voice their opinions, King questions whether those laws could even be considered “democratically structured.” Because of this, King stipulates that it is the obligation of his affiliates to break the unjust laws “openly, lovingly,” and with “the willingness to accept the penalty.”
Going on the offensive, King further denounces the views of “white moderates,” both within and outside of the church. He criticizes their devotion to order over justice, stating that “lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Despite hope for the support of white moderates, MLK has been frustrated time and time again by their lack of support. Whether preaching from the pulpit, or writing to King, white moderates have consistently called on King to not be in a “religious hurry” to right the wrongs in the United States. In a rare instance of condemnation by this minister and proponent of brotherhood, King states that we will “have to repent in this generation… the appalling silence of good people.” King continues on to point out his disappointment with white moderates and church leaders. In a scathing letter, King confesses that he has never before “written so long a letter,” and apologizes if his letter indicated “an unreasonable impatience” with the clergy he is responding to. Additionally, King closes his letter by hoping the “dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities.”
King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail came at a pivotal point during the Civil Rights movement. Clayborne Carson, the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and a professor at Stanford University, has discussed several works of King that shaped the civil rights debate during the mid-20th century. Carson stated, in an interview with NPR, that if the campaign in Birmingham had failed, “there would not have been the ‘I Have a Dream speech, because he wouldn’t have been invited to give the concluding speech if he had just failed in a major campaign in Birmingham.” In other words, the success of King and the Civil Rights movement hinged on the outcome of the Birmingham protests, and this letter was King’s main tool in combatting the criticism lunged at him from all sides. Because of King’s success in Birmingham, he was able to rally his supporters all the way to Washington, where he would speak of a world where men were created equal and laws ensured it to be so. King’s letter, along with the countless sacrifices made by individuals across the country, were instrumental in moving the United States away from bigotry and toward equality.
It is important to note that, while civil rights legislation was written in 1964 and 1965, racial discrimination is an issue that still plagues this nation today. In the past four years, during my time at the University of Missouri, several incidents of police brutality and voter ID legislation has shown the degree to which our nation still struggles with racial discrimination. For example, Trayvon Martin, an African American male, was gunned down in a Florida residential neighborhood by George Zimmerman,, a man claiming to be a part of the neighborhood watch. This teenager, whose only crime was being black, never received justice and his murderer was not sent to jail for this incident. Simultaneously, throughout the country, State Legislatures are passing voter ID laws that will make it harder for people of color to vote. The Missouri State Legislature passed a voter ID law that, according to former Secretary of State Jason Kander, would disenfranchise over 220,000 Missourians. Most of these disenfranchised voters would have been African Americans, many of which are underrepresented both at the state and federal levels of government. Jonathan Butler, a former university student, peacefully protested the lack of action by university officials after racially motivated actions by certain students on campus. Many called his actions reckless and unwarranted, and that he should not rush to create tension in the name of equal rights. Clearly, the issues faced by Martin Luther King are not new, nor are the criticisms King faced. As the great debate about racial inequality surges on in town halls and college dormitories, I believe that the words crafted by King in that Birmingham jail cell still ring true today. When refuting the claim that he should wait to spark a debate about civil rights, King refuted this by saying that African Americans have been waiting for 340 years for their “constitutional and God given rights.” While the world looks towards the United States as an example of a functioning democracy, “we still creep at a horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Martin Luther King, along with Jonathan Butler and the thousands of protesters who have demonstrated over the past 70 years, are tired of waiting, as should anyone who believes in the doctrine that “all men are created equal.” With King’s letter as a playbook, the fight for racial equality strives on.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. A letter from a Birmingham jail. Andover, MA: Publisher not identified, 1968. Print.
“Letter From Birmingham Jail: 50 Years Later .” Interview by Michel Martin . Letter From Birmingham Jail: 50 Years Later . NPR . 16 Apr. 2013. Radio. Transcript.