Revisiting a jail in Birmingham Alabama

This is the day that Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered throughout the United States for his stance on Civil Rights. In August of 1963, Doctor King sat in the Birmingham Jail after a demonstration. He penned a letter that talked about his stance on the civil rights movement. He talked about why he was doing it and how he was doing it. He also penned his dissatisfaction to white moderates and churches and their stance on the movement.

Doctor Kings’ actions are remarkable as to his position and execution of the movement. What he faced was a human ideology and tradition forged over hundreds of years of the position of individuals in a society based on their color. Just one hundred years before a civil war was fought that focused on the issue of slavery within our nation. However, just a war could not mend human ideology. It could not force a white person to believe that an African American was the same as them.

The laws showed that they were not ready to be accepted, especially in the South. People of different colors could not attend the same schools, they could not attend the same restaurants, the same bathrooms. The laws on its face said you get everything white people do and are equal but in reality, they said we are not ready to accept the African American into our lives. I am sure that many white moderates believed that through time the older racist individuals would fade away. I am also sure that many African Americans were not willing to enter such a confrontation in fear of their lives. They believed that through time, time would heal all. Things would improve through time.

Doctor King disagreed. He looked at what was happening in the South, the injustice toward African Americans, the burning of their homes and targets of bullying and mobs. He wanted things to be changed then and not later. He left the comforts of his home. His family and friends and put himself on a target for change. He had the local police against him. He had the local community and the majority against him. He had the laws against him. He had the majority against him. He took those odds and created a force to push back towards it.

The angle he took was also placed in his Christian beliefs. The force he used had no violence. There were no guns. There were no fights. There was no declaration of war. There was no call to arms. He pushed back with the word and with the voice and with what they way things should be. There were civil demonstrations, speeches and sermons. There were marches. The most controversial thing that was done was to cross the color line and sit in a white restaurant, bus or restroom.

What he did was not easy. However, he did it because he felt it was right and just and for a just cause. Whenever there is a greater power of opposition it is never easy. Whenever someone exercises power and authority over another unjustly it is hard to speak up. Sometimes it is easy to let things go. Not to shake the boat. To just let the bully win and move on. The bully can make life miserable for you. The bully can drag you through the mud. Place you in jail.

Sometimes in in the end, it appears that the bully prevails. In the end, the road that Martin Luther took eventually took his life. However, what he stood for, his words, his actions in the end prevailed. Thanks to Martin Luther King, we have someone we can look back to and see the effects of what standing up for what is unjust can do. It is never easy. There will always be opposition. However, in the end, the word and the actions will always prevail, if there is a force to stand up. Doctor King called out the individuals in his Birmingham letter that sat on the sidelines and did nothing.

The road to what is just and unjust is not over. The fight will continue. As long as there is the desire to exercise power and control over other individuals, as long as there is an idea that one is better and greater than those around them, as long as there is a fight to be better than someone else at the expense of others and their rights there will always be this type of opposition. The question is who will be willing to stand-up against the injustice when it comes and to just let it slide off? If there is no opposition to push back on the other force it will just continue to grow.

The full text of Doctor King’s letter is below:

Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. From the Birmingham jail, where he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in longhand the letter which follows. It was his response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. Dr. King, who was born in 1929, did his undergraduate work at Morehouse College; attended the integrated Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, one of six black pupils among a hundred students, and the president of his class; and won a fellowship to Boston University for his Ph.D.

WHILE confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms. I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of "outsiders coming in."

I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliate organizations all across the South, one being the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Whenever necessary and possible, we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago our local affiliate here in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promises. So I am here, along with several members of my staff, because we were invited here. I am here because I have basic organizational ties here.

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider. You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.

I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.

IN ANY nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality.

There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts. On the basis of them, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation. Then came the opportunity last September to talk with some of the leaders of the economic community. In these negotiating sessions certain promises were made by the merchants, such as the promise to remove the humiliating racial signs from the stores. On the basis of these promises, Reverend Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to call a moratorium on any type of demonstration. As the weeks and months unfolded, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise.

The signs remained. As in so many experiences of the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.

We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through a process of self-purification. We Letter From Birmingham Jail 2 started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" and "Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?" We decided to set our direct-action program around the Easter season, realizing that, with exception of Christmas, this was the largest shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this was the best time to bring pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.

Then it occurred to us that the March election was ahead, and so we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day.

When we discovered that Mr. Conner was in the runoff, we decided again to postpone action so that the demonstration could not be used to cloud the issues. At this time we agreed to begin our nonviolent witness the day after the runoff. This reveals that we did not move irresponsibly into direct action. We, too, wanted to see Mr. Conner defeated, so we went through postponement after postponement to aid in this community need. After this we felt that direct action could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask, "Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister.

This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

We therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue. One of the basic points in your statement is that our acts are untimely. Some have asked, "Why didn't you give the new administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this inquiry is that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts. We will be sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Mr. Boutwell will bring the millennium to Birmingham.