Thursday, December 08, 2011

Letter from Birmingham Jail

If you click on the title for this blog you can read the entire letter composed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in August of 1963. It is a remarkable document. Dr. King wrote with such kindness and patience, yet still was able to defend his reasons for peaceful, non-violent demonstrations.  He wrote the letter in response to a newspaper article he was given.  The article was a "Call for Unity" penned by a group of 5 Christian ministers, inexplicably seeking to make a "Christian Case" against the civil rights movement.

Here are some of the powerful words Dr. King wrote from jail...:

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.  Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.  Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid!
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.
You may well ask:  “Why direct action?  Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth?  Isn’t negotiation a better path?”  You are quite right in calling for negotiation.  Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action.  Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.  It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view 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 piercing familiarity.  This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”  We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
One may ask:  “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”  The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out.  In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist.  That would lead to anarchy.  One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.  I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering that outright rejection.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.  Was not Jesus an extremist for love:  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice:  “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel:  “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist:  “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”  And John Bunyan:  “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  And Abraham Lincoln:  “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”  And Thomas Jefferson:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.  Will we be extremists for hate or for love?  Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
Never before have I written so long a letter.  I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time.  I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith.  I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.  Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was 15 in 1963 and did not have the character or maturity to understand the heroic and moral stance Dr. King and his followers were taking. I am ashamed to say, my sympathy was with Bull Conner's German Shepherd's and the Birmingham Policemen. I grew up in a West Tennessee community which was 100% segregated.  The gasoline stations in our town had rest rooms for Men, Women and Colored.  The Court House had rest rooms in the building for White Men and White Women, but the one for "Colored" was in the basement which had to be accessed by walking outside and around to the side of the building.  It flooded each time it rained.  

As Dr. King sat in the Birmingham jail, I was worried that our schools might be integrated and that I and my white classmates might have to attend school with blacks.  (If I had written this in 1963 I can assure you the name I used for blacks would have been offensive.)  I did not attend school with African American students until I was a Senior in High School, and then it was only with a dozen, hand picked students who had the courage to stand up to my and my classmates narrow minded bigotry.  I did nothing cruel or mean other than to ignore them and pretend they were not there.  While I did not participate in the slurs uttered behind their back, or the mean tricks that were played on them, I am painfully ashamed to say I felt no remorse for their plight.

 When Dr. King was murdered in 1968 I was a student at Freed-Hardeman College, a Christian College.  I did not feel the hurt and disappointment I would later, I felt apathy toward Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. and his people, and concern for the destruction and violence in the riots which followed his assassination. Well, I am truly sorry now and have tremendous respect for all that Dr. King accomplished on behalf of not only his own race, but for all of us.  I think he was the greatest orator of the 20th century. Take the time to listen to his speeches and appreciate the articulate way he expressed their plight.  Consider for a moment the fact that his words had tremendous effect.  As difficult and confusing as our present society may be, love for all people characterizes it much more today than it did in 1963.

(I do not deserve for you to take even a moment, but if you would say a prayer for me, asking Almighty God to forgive my youthful, ignorant, hateful bigotry I will be eternally grateful.)

Now, we live in an age devoid of great oratory. Instead we circulate hateful and mean spirited e-mails which misrepresent and insult the other side of whatever political or social position we occupy.

Let's return to a time when we can really listen to and understand the other person's point of view. We may not agree, but we will be better able to explain why. And who knows, we may find common ground.