Skip to content

Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin Luther King Jr. April 16, 1963

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., stepped onto the balcony outside room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.  He and his entourage had stayed at the Lorraine frequently and were known to occupy the same room each time.  On this visit to Memphis, King arrived the day before to support black sanitation workers who had been on strike since February 1968.  Black city workers had walked out over wage discrimination, benefits, and safety conditions.  At that time, the city imposed remarkably worse employment terms on black workers than it did on whites.  The walkout was part of the larger non-violent protest that King and civil rights activists had engaged in for years against the white segregationist power structure throughout the south.

It was to those workers, on April 3, 1968, that King gave his famous “Mountain Top” speech in which he told the story of the modern civil rights movement, his place in it, and the need to carry on as a unified force.  King knew that death from an assassin’s bullet or the Klan’s vengeance was highly probable and in the Mountain Top speech, he foreshadowed his own mortality.  The full text of that speech, given at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), was King’s history of the struggle.  If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so.  With the vivid detail and rhetorical flourish of a stereotypical AME or Baptist minister, he reminded the audience not only of what had been accomplished, but what was left to do.  He described the struggle, not as one in opposition to or against something, but for what had been promised in America’s founding documents.  “All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.””  He offered advice to his audience and a warning against disunity; opponents of justice can only win if the people were divided.  Together, they could not be conquered.  He then ended with the words we would all come to know as quintessential Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

As Dr. King stood outside room 306 he was struck by a single bullet from a Remington Model 760 rifle.  It ripped through his right cheek and jaw and traveled down his vertebrae as the civil rights icon slumped to the ground.  Witnesses remember screams and panicked city dwellers running for cover.  He was barely conscious.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. was pronounced dead one hour later at St. Joseph’s Hospital.  He was survived by his wife and four young children.  He was only 39 years old.

Today, Wednesday, April 4, 2018, commemorates the 50th anniversary of King’s murder and as we often do with these moments, we reflect on the deceased’s impact, but also the progress (or lack thereof) that we have made in the areas in which they dedicated their lives.  For Dr. King, that cause is often cited and limited to black civil rights and an end to segregation.  But while King certainly focused on the immoral and unconstitutional laws separating blacks from whites, it would be a mistake not to recognize how the causes championed by civil rights activists in the 1960s went beyond people of color.  Those early agitators, trained in civil disobedience and non-violent protest, and grounded in the Gospels as they were meant to be interpreted, fought for equal justice under the law, as promised at our nation’s founding.  Rich, poor, black, brown, or white:  these characteristics did not matter.  Social and economic justice was the promise and these the causes for which they struggled.

Letter From a Birmingham Jail

In 1963, five years before that night at the Lorraine, Martin Luther King was in Birmingham, Alabama leading a coordinated non-violent protest against the city’s segregationist policies.  The demonstration including a city-wide boycott of services and businesses, sit-ins, and marches organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.  When a judge issued an injunction forbidding all forms of protest, including those that were non-violent, King, the president of the SCLC was arrested and thrown in jail.  It was there that he would pen what later became movement’s manifesto.

“Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” was written in response to a “Call for Unity;” an editorial written by local white clergy and printed in the local paper.  In it, the clergymen acknowledged the racial injustice inherent in segregation and in the discriminatory hiring practices but implored King and the civil rights activists to fight it out in the courts.  Tensions in Birmingham were high and these white community leaders hoped to calm the racial tinderbox before violence ensued.  King’s response was in part a defense of Gandhian non-violent civil disobedience tactics but also a condemnation of white moderates and clergy who simply “went along” with the white power structure’s segregationists’ policies.

Parts of King’s “Letter” was published throughout the summer of 1963 and as it became more popular was reprinted in newspapers and magazines throughout the country.  Civil rights historians have called it the movement’s manifesto; King not only defends the social tension resulting from the boycotts and mass demonstrations but declares that tension is actually necessary to force whites to give up their privilege.  King argues that blacks have not made “a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.”  Further, he points to the immorality of “group think,” and claims that while individuals may do the right thing, groups “tend to be more immoral.”  Non-violent protest and civil disobedience, including marches, boycotts, and other forms of protests were to be used to force change upon a stubborn white population.

“Wait” and Other Themes

If you have not read the full text of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,”  I urge you to do so.  If you have children, read it to them.  In answering the question, “why now,” King describes what it is like to live under apartheid as the oppressed and inferior race.

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 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. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

This is what we did to our fellow American citizens because of their skin color.  We can point to eugenics studies from the early 20th century, and make excuses about states’ rights.  But this is what we did.  And in fact, what King describes in his letter is benign.  He does not describe the sheer terror inflicted on the black population by the KKK, the violence, horror, and denigration heaped on an entire race of people – for generations.  He does not cite the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black child from Chicago who, while visiting his uncle in Mississippi in 1955, was lynched, tortured, mutilated, and dumped into a shallow river, only to be found days later by a local fisherman.  His crime?  The wife (who was white) of the local grocer, told her husband that little 14-year-old Emmett “offended” her while he was in the store.  For that indiscretion (which she recanted just a few years ago), Emmett was shipped back to Chicago in a plain wooden box.  His mother insisted that his funeral be an open casket and she asked a local photographer to take pictures of a son she did not recognize.  She wanted America to see the result of fear and hate.

In the letter, King differentiates between “just” and “unjust” laws.  “Just” laws are those that conform with moral laws handed down by God.  Just laws are followed.  But “unjust” laws – they are immoral – and thus, according to St. Augustine, “are no law at all.”  By this definition, King has determined that segregation is “politically, economically and sociologically unsound” but it is also immoral and sinful.  Separation of the races is morally unjust and therefore, should end; breaking the law in pursuit of abolishing an unjust law is just and should be pursued.  And because those in power will never give up or share their privilege voluntarily, it must be won through direct action.  Blacks would only secure civil rights through consistent, hard-fought, neverending struggle.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.

Dr. King expresses profound disappointment with two groups in the struggle for justice:  white moderates and the larger Christian family.  In the former, King finds a group more committed to “order” than to justice.  White moderates condemn the violence of the KKK, and disagree with the status quo of segregation, knowing that it is morally wrong and economically unsustainable but prioritize peace and harmony over racial tension resulting from direct action.  This is the “wait” cohort; the paternalistic group represented by the white clergy who will metaphorically pat the agitator on his or her head, express an understanding of the predicament, and end with, “let’s just all go back to our respective places for now and work out the details later.”  King argues that the desire for order stifles the pursuit of justice and that white moderates are more of an impediment to progress than the Klan; everyone knows where the Klan stands.

To the larger Christian community and specifically its white leadership, King does not mince words.  While noting exceptions in both the Protestant and Catholic churches, King admonishes religious leaders for their support of the segregationist status quo.  Ministers and church elders stood by while their fellow Christians were beaten and maligned, explaining that with “social issues, the gospel has no real concern.”  This letter was written from a cell in Birmingham, Alabama, home of Governor George Wallace, perhaps the most hateful and racist political actor of the era.  Where were the churchgoers?  What God did they worship?  How did they justify their inaction and acquiescence to such injustice?  Dr. King resurrects images of the early Christian church, in the first few centuries after the death of Christ.  It was during this period, legend says, that Christian pilgrims risked their lives in the face of oppression to perform their moral responsibility.  King prays that the church finds its way back to its moral center else its authority be forfeited.

Dr. King ends his proclamation as he ends all of his speeches:  With hope.  Hope that America’s moral compass will persevere and that all of God’s people will be treated with the dignity and respect America promised the world in her founding documents.

America’s Report Card

If this were a movie, the final scene would have cut to Chicago’s Grant Park on November 4, 2008.  It was there that President-elect Barack Obama gave his victory speech after clinching both the popular and electoral vote to become the nation’s first black president.  240,000 people were on hand that night to witness history.  An economy in free-fall and unpopular wars on at least two fronts, ‘hope and change’ were the message.

Unfortunately, America’s “complicated history” with race did not end that night, nor did it wrap up four years later at his re-elect.  In several studies following the 2016 campaign, researchers found that after controlling for all the obvious factors, it was racial resentment that drove many voter decisions, especially those that supported Trump.  Think about that.  Almost 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in cold blood for demanding that his government protect the constitutional rights of all Americans regardless of race, color or creed, there are still enough white Americans who feel that people of color violate traditional American values, such as individualism and self-reliance. Racial resentment leads to white vulnerability resulting in economic anxiety.  Does that really explain 2016?

We should be careful about drawing conclusions this close to an event.  I believe that real trends, including backlashes and reactions, can best be seen in hindsight, which does require a bit of time.  But given that Obama’s successor was his polar opposite, made overtly racist statements throughout the campaign, and was the founder of birtherism, we would be hard-pressed not to accept that race did not play a role in our last presidential election.

While presidential politics is important, especially now given the policies spewing from the Department of Justice, we should evaluate progress towards social justice outside of the Beltway and look to states and local communities to assess how far we have come to reaching King’s goals.  In the last years of his life, MLK expanded the scope of his activism to include social and economic justice, human rights, fair housing and all the other progressive causes that came out of the 60s.  He had reached out to Latinos and immigrant communities and was one of the first national leaders to come out against the Vietnam War as he recognized that the poor and communities of color carried the heaviest burden and made the greatest sacrifices.  He had come to embrace many of the causes we still fight for today and preached unity to all those who would listen.

Statistics rarely lie and they say that we have a long way to reach racial parity.  While the President touts that black unemployment is the lowest it has ever been, it is still much higher than its white counterpart.  The income and wealth gap between blacks and whites has grown wider than at any time in our history, mirroring the inequality seen between the superrich and middle class.  In a nation in which the top one-tenth of a percent owns a disproportionate amount of the wealth, the gap between whites and people of color simply exacerbates an already large cleavage.

And then there is the police violence, killing of unarmed black men and lack of institutional accountability.   Gun violence in communities of color are an everyday occurrence; children walk to and from school at great personal risk from gangs and drug dealers.  In his book, Colony in a Nation, Chris Hayes describes how the criminal justice system behaves differently in the “nation,” where you and I live, from the ‘colony’ which are primarily communities of color.  In the ‘nation,’ the emphasis is on law and the justice that goes with it.  Due process and protection from illegal search and seizure are but a few of the rights citizens of the nation find available to them.

But in the colony, society is obsessed with order, and it will go to great lengths to achieve it including mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, and stop and frisk laws, all of which disproportionally impact people of color.  In the colony, unarmed black men are shot by police and because the officer “feared for his life,” there is no ramification or accountability.  In the colony, the community is used as an ATM to shore up a dwindling tax base where police officers write ridiculous citations against the citizenry to collect revenues so as not to have to raise taxes on the nation.  When riots break out, as they are wont to do on any tinderbox, the law comes in to restore order; never addressing the source of the issues, simply quelling the noise to ease the tension.

Legacies matter when they inspire action

The first time I wrote this post, (which I then accidentally deleted), my assessment of America’s current state was direr.  Theodore Parker, the 19th-century Unitarian minister and abolitionist said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Inspirational yes, but true?  I am not sure.  If the last decade has taught us anything, it is that struggle for equality and basic human dignity goes on; we have not won the war.  Worse, sometimes it feels that we continue to fight the same battles.

Consider the drama surrounding Colin Kaepernick.  Here is a young black man who saw his community riddled with crime and poverty.  He saw the police not as an institution sent to protect, but purely a mechanism of enforcement.  Time and again, he saw police officers shoot and kill unarmed black men.  So he used his platform to call attention to an issue that had been largely ignored by the media.  You know what happened.  White America went ballistic.  Everybody had an opinion about Kaepernick’s choice of protest and most of them were critical.  Even liberal pundits would begin their analysis with, “Well I would not protest in this way, but I support his right to do so.”  The right felt Kaepernik’s civil disobedience tantamount to treason.  When other players joined the protest, the President entered the fray, and then all hell broke loose.

And yet, unarmed black men are still being shot by police.  Officers and police authorities are not held accountable.  Incomes of minorities are still less than those of whites.  Neighborhoods are more segregated today than they were 20 years ago.  And a major political party and its supporters have told an entire ethnic block that they are not welcome in America.

You may have reached this point and wondered aloud, “How did we get here?”  You may also be asking yourself, “What can I do?”  Both questions have easy answers.  The first, “How did we get here?” may be expanded to, “Why do we continue to fight last century’s war?”  Please, just Google.  Pick up a book on civil rights, social justice reform, or mass incarceration.  There are literally thousands of online libraries with access to free materials that will explain how and why we continue to regress in these most important of areas.  Even those busiest among us has the time to spend a few minutes a day doing something other than scanning Facebook or posting to Instagram.  And while that may sound haughty and judgmental, perhaps it should.  Our fellow citizens have less opportunity and encounter greater risk, simply because of skin color or socio-economic standing.  That is wrong and we should say so.

What can you do?  That too is quite easy.  Prioritize issues of social and economic justice, human rights, equal access, fair housing, and criminal justice reform even though you, your family or your community may not be directly impacted.  I’ll say it another way:  put yourself in someone else’s shoes and give money to causes, volunteer, and vote for candidates with platforms that will address other people’s problems.  It is really that simple.

Simple, but hard right?  Simple because it is the moral and righteous thing to do – worry less about yourself and more about others – but hard because for decades we have been conditioned to do the opposite.  For years, our politicians, enabled by conservative think tanks and churches, have convinced us that individualism and self-reliance are revered.  Success is a result of an individual’s hard work and perseverance thus, failure must be a result of laziness and lack of will.  You know that is not true.  So stop believing it.

I think you’ll find that when you prioritize the concerns of others over your own, you begin to support causes and vote for candidates that support the issues that directly affect you and your family.  Supporting a candidate that has prioritized criminal justice reform and voter protections will very likely align with your position on public education or healthcare reform.  But by emphasizing the issues that are important to others, you give them greater merit.  Let’s face it, the reforms we need to make progress towards racial parity require “white moderates” and Christians to stare down the opposition.  We cannot stand idly by while our fellow citizens are disenfranchised, shot, and left unprotected.  They deserve more.

Why does this matter so much?

In my head, I have concluded this post with an equal rhetorical flourish and inspirational and uplifting words.  I talk about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the promises America has made, and the blood that has been shed to form a more perfect union.  If you have read my blog, you know that I believe in the American Idea; that what makes America unique among nations are the values of liberty, equality, and justice that we champion.

But in addition to all the inspiring words and ideas, I keep coming back to one basic truth:  Didn’t we already have this argument?  We settled it right?  Seriously America, we literally fought a war over these ideas; a war, I might add that killed over 600,000 Americans which represented 2% of the population.  In today’s numbers, that’s 6.5 million American deaths.  The Civil War may have started out as an armed insurrection but it became a referendum on what America would become.  The South lost that argument – in fact, Lincoln’s Army deliberately fought a war of attrition, recognizing that it must crush the Old Confederacy in order for a better society, a more just society to rise in its place.  And yet, for reasons that would require another post to explain, “we” allowed the old order, with its bigotry and white supremacist beliefs to return to power.  Worse, we allowed those thoughts to spread and infect all regions of the country such that we extended our xenophobia and racism to other minorities and races.  For a century.  Is it no wonder we have such disparity?

Time and energy wasted to maintain an unjust social order make no rational sense.  Continuing to do so is the literal definition of insanity.

In conclusion, I circle back to a theme heard throughout King’s life:  remain united in the quest for justice and consider others before yourself when you walk into the voting booth.  Let’s not have this same conversation in twenty-five years when we acknowledge the 75th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.  The best way to commemorate a fallen hero is to do what he told you to do.  It’s not rocket science.


%d bloggers like this: