On April 3, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) began coordinating a series of sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations against racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 12, he was violently arrested on the charge of parading without a permit, per an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” that a local circuit judge had issued two days earlier, a week into the protests.
On the day of Dr. King’s arrest, eight male Alabama clergymen issued a public statement directed at him, titled “The Call for Unity,” following a letter penned a few months earlier under the title “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” They accused him of being an “outsider” to the community’s cause, suggested that racial injustice in Alabama shouldn’t be his business, and claimed that the nonviolent resistance demonstrations he led were “unwise and untimely.” “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations,” they wrote. It was such a blatant example of the very injustice Dr. King had dedicated his life to eradicating — the hijacking of what should be “common sense” to all in the service of what is “common” and convenient to only those in power — that he felt compelled to respond. The following day, while still in jail, he penned a remarkable book-length open letter. (“Never before have I written a letter this long,” he marveled as he penned the final paragraphs.)
Aware of the media’s power to incite the popular imagination, King and his team began distributing mimeographed copies to the clergy of Birmingham and eventually made their way to the press. Major newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Post, published excerpts. The full text was eventually published as Letter from Birmingham City Jail (public library) and became not only a foundational text of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s but an enduring manifesto for social justice and the human struggle for equality in every sense of the word, in every corner of the world.
Drawing on his vast pool of intellectual resources — from Socrates to St. Augustine to Thoreau — and his own singular gift for blending the powers of a philosopher, a preacher, and a poet, Dr. King debunks the clergymen’s arguments one by one, beginning with their assertion that the injustice in Birmingham is not his “outsider” business:
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.
He outlines the four pillars of nonviolent resistance — which bear a poignant parallel to the four rules for arguing intelligently that philosopher Daniel Dennett would formulate more than half a century later — and writes:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) negotiation; 3) self-purification; and 4) direct action.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s timeless wisdom on the constructive and destructive elements in human nature — “Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” he wrote in 1926, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” — King puts forth the wonderful notion of “creative tension” as a force of constructive action:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue… There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt 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.
King’s ideas undoubtedly influenced South African writer, freedom-fighter, and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer when, a decade later, she contemplated the role of the writer as precisely such a gadfly on the back of injustice — something King further illuminates when he adds:
We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing create, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
He considers why such nonviolent instigation of “creative tension” is vital to the claiming of freedom:
History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but … groups are more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
He zooms in on the accusation of untimeliness and, arguing that “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” and puts in poignant perspective the relativity of timeliness:
I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun-town is closed to colored children, and see depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; … when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.
Indeed, he argues that at the root of the clergymen’s accusations is a profound misconception of time. Time, as we know, is a human invention that Galileo perfected; like all technology, it is a neutral tool that can be bent to wills good and evil, put toward ends constructive and destructive — something King captures beautifully:
All this … grows out of a tragic misconception of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift out national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
He goes on to explore the expatiation of the legal system for the unjust ends of those in power:
There are two types of laws: There are just and unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” … An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. 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. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong…
An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority group that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
In a sense, contemporary popular culture is built on the same foundation as unjust law — on the warping of sameness and difference, which Shonda Rhimes addressed with extraordinary elegance of insight in her Human Rights Campaign award acceptance speech. To King, indeed, the law should be reclaimed as an ally to the populace in its diverse totality rather than a formalized system of objectifying people. He sees nonviolent resistance not as a way to destroy the law but as a way to normalize it:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it 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 willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.
But the law, of course, cannot and should not be separate from the social forces that support it. In one of his most poignant remarks in the letter, which resonates all the more deeply in our present culture where impenitent reaction has replaced considered response and become the seedbed of misunderstanding, King adds:
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.
Letter from Birmingham City Jail remains an indispensable read for any thinking, feeling member of the human family. Complement it with Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice and Margaret Mead on the root of racism and how to counter it.
Thank you, Jacqueline
This content was originally published here.