Excerpts from MLK’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be 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. 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.”
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” 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.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent 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 so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured…
-From Letter From a Birmingham Jail
Written by Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 16, 1963
Excerpts from MLK’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail - Swan Tower
January 16, 2017 @ 3:10 pm
[…] Hines posted this to his blog earlier today; I’m reposting it because it is timely and […]
The irony of Martin Luther King Day— | Fraser Sherman's Blog
January 16, 2017 @ 8:16 pm
[…] man that others or himself haven’t said better. For example, Jim Hines links to King’s letter from Birmingham jail. As Fred Clark of the Slacktivist blog once put it, a lot of right-wing preachers declare their […]
Eleanor C Ray
January 17, 2017 @ 12:30 am
Important, seriously, the idea that justice is not appropriate to delay. I somewhat understand the infuriatingly tepid response to a call for timely justice that comes from allies who do not really feel what you feel. That I have experienced in various ways. But I cannot understand how intensely those must feel who are denied all rights because of something they cannot help and cannot hide. I respect their struggle, but it is so far more terrible than I have the right to say I understand.
King’s genius, for tepid white people is, in small part, to articulately speak the oppressor’s language to our faces so we have a clear mirror of our failing in this area, and cannot hide from ourselves.
I have taken pride in my Quaker ancestors for fighting alongside blacks to oppose slavery, but then I think–how am I living up to the family legacy? And how much did they really feel African-Americans were equal, and how much did they just oppose slavery itself?
I cannot step outside my perspective entirely, but I can try to listen, and try to act boldly, and admit when I fall short. Which I do. Often.
Sleep well, Reverend King. There are many who hear you still.
January 17, 2017 @ 4:45 pm
I read this several times a year and consider it one of King’s most powerful pieces of writing. My favorite line, though, is this
“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. “