Letter from Birmingham Jail
Love this picture of MLK smiling!
Until now I had only read the most famous quotes of MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail
but I had never taken the time to read the full text.
To many, along with his "I Have A Dream" speech, this letter represents King's most relevant and impactful public statement, because it came at a crucial time when both he and the Civil Rights Movement were being heavily criticized and facing lots of pressure from both the political left and the right.
The year was 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, one of most segregated cities in the country. A series of marches and sit-ins, known as the "Birmingham Campaign"
, had been organized by several civil rights organizations.
According to Wikipedia:
"On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12 (Good Friday), King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, and other marchers while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on."
This open letter was a response to a public statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen while King was still in jail. Even though they agree that racial segregation and the mistreatment of African Americans was unacceptable, they accused MLK of being an extremist and of not having the patience to wait for the courts to sort out these issues.
What struck me the most about this powerful document was King's eloquence and ability to explain why he thought this was the right time to demand these changes.
King is arrested on a charge of "Loitering" in Birminghan
Like Gandhi and Mandela, MLK was passionate and convinced about his cause, but he also had a keen sense of the national political climate and recognized the importance of his commitment to a nonviolent resistance approach. He always knew that the success or failure of this movement hanged in its ability to remain a peaceful one.
It's difficult to believe that many in America considered King and the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement "extremists". Reading this letter you can feel his sense of urgency in explaining to this fellow clergymen - and the nation at large- why he felt that was not a fair criticism.
"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...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 sit-ins 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. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized."
Explaining why it'll never be the "perfect" time to demand changes, he says:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
In response to the criticism on why King's advocated to "break some laws while obeying others", he argues there is a difference between just vs unjust laws:
"Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality."
This is a short but powerful, well articulated document that is now an important part of the civil rights history and a patrimony not only to Americans but to the World.
If you are interesting in reading the full text, you can read it
The audiobook version I listened to, which is narrated by Dion Graham
is fantastic. Graham did a great job at recreating MLK's very unique enunciation and oratory style. A few minutes into the audiobook, I thought I was actually listening to Dr. King reading his letter.
This a wonderful way to commemorate Black History Month!