The Salem News
---- — Fifty years ago this month Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., for taking part in civil rights demonstrations.
While incarcerated he wrote a letter to a group of white clergymen who had publicly criticized the demonstrations as “unwise and untimely.” King labored long over the letter, at first scribbling his words in the margins of a newspaper, later writing on paper smuggled in by his lawyer. When finished, it ran to about 5,000 words — more essay than epistle.
The “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” as it became known, endures as a key document of the civil rights movement. In responding to the issues raised by the clergymen, King gave expression to the basic themes of his mission — the evil of segregation, the quest for justice, the legitimacy of his tactic of nonviolent direct action — and to his sense of urgency, his conviction that his people had waited long enough, that the time to move was now.
The white clergymen, Birmingham residents all, had objected to the presence of “outsiders” in the ranks of the demonstrators. (King, of course, was from Atlanta, and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was headquartered there).
King explained that he had come to Birmingham because he had been invited by the local branch of the SCLC. But there was a more profound reason for his presence in the city: he was in Birmingham, he wrote, because “injustice is here.” Though Atlanta was his home, he could not ignore the plight of the people in Birmingham because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Rather than demonstrations, the clergymen had pressed for negotiations, to which only Birmingham residents, “white and Negro,” would be party. They claimed that the demonstrations, “however technically peaceful,” had in fact sparked violence and rage.
King understood this, correctly, as a criticism of nonviolent direct action, and he attempted to clarify why he had turned to this tactic and what it was intended to accomplish.
His people were demonstrating, King wrote, because the power structure of Birmingham had left them no choice. The city’s political leaders refused to negotiate, and discussions with the business community had resulted in promises — such as taking down the racial signs in their stores — that were not kept.
In the face of this intransigence, nonviolent direct action was their only recourse. Its purpose was to bring about a condition of crisis and “creative tension” of such impact that the people of Birmingham could no longer ignore the injustice in their city.
“Tension” was not a negative word as King used it; he wrote of a “constructive nonviolent tension” that was conducive to growth by freeing people from old habits of thought and getting them to see the world in new ways.
The clergymen’s characterization of the Birmingham demonstrations as “untimely” drew a sharp response from King. None of his demonstrations, he told them, had ever been considered “well-timed” by people who had not themselves experienced the harshness of racial segregation. There was one word he had heard over and over from the white community: “Wait.” And whenever he heard it, he knew its true meaning: “Never.”
King had lost patience with people who loftily assumed they could “set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”
The clergymen’s concern over demonstrators’ willingness to break the law led King into a discourse on the distinction between just and unjust laws, in which he presented a profound critique of segregation.
A just law, he wrote, is one that is in accord with the moral law or God’s law. In turn, an unjust law is at odds with the moral law. A law that enhances human personality is just; a law that degrades it, unjust. And by this measure, King argued, laws that impose and maintain segregation are unjust, because segregation “distorts the soul and damages personality.”
Segregation works its harm on both sides of the divide, on the segregator and the segregated alike. Segregation imparts to the segregator a mistaken feeling of superiority, while to the segregated it wrongly conveys a feeling of inferiority.
King identified the white moderate as possibly the greatest obstacle to the civil rights movement, more than overtly hostile groups like the Klan. He viewed the white moderate as more concerned about order than justice, as professing support for the civil rights movement but skittish about direct action, as forever cautioning the civil rights movement to “wait for a more propitious time.”
He also felt let down by the white church, whose leaders had been at best timid in supporting the civil rights movement, and in some cases openly hostile. He had hoped the white clergy in Birmingham, would facilitate communication between the demonstrators and the city’s leadership, but that hope had gone unrealized.
Some white religious leaders, King acknowledged, had indeed urged their congregations to abide by desegregation decrees because they were the law. He was still waiting, though, to hear any of them tell their people to abide by the decrees “because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.”
Midway through the letter occurs a brief sentence that captures King’s message with simplicity and power, and reminds us, too, of how providential his presence was among the leadership of the civil rights movement.
It comes in a paragraph where King was answering the clergymen’s objections to his use of “extreme measures” in Birmingham. He told them he occupied a place between “two opposing forces” in the black community: the force of complacency, of resigned acceptance of the status quo, on the one side; and on the other side, the force of bitterness, hate and violence.
He had taken up a position in the middle, he wrote, because he knew these were not the only choices available to his people: “There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”
John Adams is a resident of Peabody.