The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is known for his fiery speeches, including his most famous: “I Have a Dream.” Yet one of his most powerful communications was not a speech, but a letter. On April 16, 1963, King was locked up in the Birmingham jail in Birmingham, Ala. He was there because he was protesting, along with other civil rights leaders, in defiance of a judge’s order.
While in jail, King was treated poorly. He was placed alone in a dark cell that didn’t even have a mattress and was denied his legal right to a phone call. Yet he was provided a copy of a newspaper which included “A Call To Unity” a screed written by eight white preachers who disagreed with King’s civil disobedience actions.
Written on paper snuck into the jail, King responded to those preachers with a powerful call to action that become known as “A Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” He expressed that the clergyman’s desire to have African-Americans “wait” on racial justice was, to echo Supreme Court Justice’s Earl Warren’s quote, to deny that justice altogether. He also questioned what time would be appropriate. In terms of the clergyman saying that civil disobedience was in defiance of existing laws, King said that disobeying unjust laws was not morally wrong.
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King also took white moderates, churches and the Black community to task saying that their inability to see or handle the problem of race relations or their complacency would derail the movement. In the excerpt below, King takes an exception to the role of so-called white allies who would have him seek freedom on a timetable or via less aggressive methods.
I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, 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.
King wrote the entire text on the margins of a newspaper, scraps of paper and a legal pad he was provided. His lawyers were able to take the notes back to King’s associates and they pieced it together. The “Sunday New York Post” eventually ran excerpts of it, though King never gave them permission and it was eventually published in full as “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” in “LIberation” magazine in 1963. King published a slightly different version in his own 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait.”
Since then, the missive has become one of the best-known of the civil rights movement, making conclusions that sadly, almost six decades later, are still valid. It also makes clear, that although King was viewed as a conservative next to Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who saw racial justice as more self-defense than non-violence, their ideologies and analysis of the issues facing the Black community were not as far apart as they first seemed to be.
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