400 Years Blog #50  – Letter from Birmingham Jail

Posted in: Leader's Blog

Clarence B. Jones, a friend and speech writer for Martin Luther King Jr., called the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” “one of the most profound (examples of) literature created in the 20th century.” The letter of nearly 7000 words scrawled on the edges of a newspaper and various scraps of paper is now routinely studied in college composition classes and used by social justice scholars.

King wrote the letter at a strategic and personal low point. Southern Christian Leadership Conference funds were running out and new strategies by segregationists blunted civil rights efforts. Arrested on Good Friday, April 12, 1963, King was placed in solitary confinement in the jail of one of America’s most racist cities, Birmingham, Alabama. In response to “A Call for Unity” written by eight white clergy and published in the Birmingham News condemning his extremism, King penned his masterpiece.

I will share just three of its many lessons about ethics, justice, and history. First, King justifies breaking segregation laws by distinguishing between just and unjust laws. Just laws uplift human personality and emphasize the sameness of human beings. Unjust laws degrade human personality and deny equal protection of the law – it is “difference made legal.” King writes that it is an ethical imperative to break unjust laws and to do so “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

Second, accused by clergy of spreading ugly discord wherever he went, King explained that ugly racism was already pervasive in America, festering “like a boil” that cannot heal without being opened “to the natural medicines of air and light.” Like a needle lancing an infected wound, King’s civil disobedience brought racial discrimination to the surface to help the process of healing. It pushed politicians to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Third, King rejected calls for patience and moderation. Though King would have preferred not to have had to lance the boil of racism, he believed the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren shared in 1958: “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” King bemoaned that “wait” had almost always meant “never.” He condemned white liberals “who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” King’s frustration over the “shallow understanding from people of good will” is why I began this 400 Years project. Continued “shallow understanding” today is why I will not stop. (Plans for continuing next year coming up in Blog #53.)

  • Lesson #261: King learned from Mahatma Gandhi about the power of suffering through being arrested for violating unjust laws. Gandhi got arrested in 1908, 1909, 1913, 1917, 1919, 1922, 1930, 1933, and 1942 and spent a total of seven years in jail.
  • Lesson #262: Solitary confinement was hard on King.  Clarence Jones, who visited him in jail, said that King “hated being alone. He depended on the company of people for emotional support after his many arrests. He also had been scarred by an earlier experience when he was driven to an isolated jail in rural Georgia where he thought he was going to be killed.”  When Jones visited King, “He was unshaven, dirty and dejected.” Jones thought King had gone mad when he grabbed Jones and stuffed balled-up newspapers and paper down Jones’ pants to hide it from the guards. Five days later, when Jones finally read what King had wrote he thought, “Oh my God, it’s a masterpiece.”
  • Lesson #263: Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, author of Moral Man and Immoral Society, taught King about America’s misplaced faith in “national innocence.” This self-righteous delusion stood despite the “appalling silence” of otherwise “good people.” Niebuhr explained that, “[m]an’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” For more about the link between Niebuhr and King, go to the Aspen Institute.
  • Lesson #264: Typist Mackey King, who was tasked with transcribing the “chicken scratch” first draft of King’s letter smuggled out of jail, complained that “[h]is handwriting was terrible. You just couldn’t figure it out.” She typed for 48 hours, almost without stop, and passed out with her head on the typewriter.  Such dedication was common in the civil rights movement.
  • Lesson# 265: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch noted that at first the letter was virtually ignored – “nobody was interested in it. Nobody recognized it as significant.” Had it not been for the fact that the world soon witnessed Birmingham  demonstrations, police dogs, and fire hoses aimed at small children, we may have never heard of the letter.  The racism rose to the surface like an infection.
  • Lesson #266: Clarence Jones, author of Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed America, said in 2007 that, “[e]xcept for Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Martin Luther King, Jr., in 12 years and 4 months from 1956 to 1968, did more to achieve justice in America than any other event or person in the previous 400 years.
  • Lesson #267: King apologized for the length of the letter, explaining 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?”
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