The letter from Birmingham jail shows another side of Martin Luther King Jr.
Just months before his “I Have A Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the frustrated “letter from Birmingham jail”. Local clergy had released a statement calling Martin Luther King Jr. “unwise and untimely”, and were calling on King to stop his public, non-violent demonstrations. In his responding letter, Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the local clergy and their problems with him:
“You may well ask: Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which 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, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”
The local communities’ problems with Martin Luther King Jr., mainly seem to be that he wouldn’t just go away quietly. Many don’t really give much thought to the other side of their heroes’ persona, mostly that they get discouraged, angry, disappointed and fed up just like the rest of us, and this letter reveals many of King’s behind the scenes emotions. That Martin Luther King Jr. was able to conduct such a logical, calm argument in the face of all the struggles and emotional challenges and setbacks he faced, is a testament to just what kind of revolutionary he was:
“In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”
His problem wasn’t just with extremists like the Klu Klu Klan, but also the moderates who wouldn’t take any action, and let things stay exactly as they were. Many white moderates of the time took a “let’s wait and see approach”, hoping the problem would just basically fix itself, in time. Mr. King knew differently and tried his best to get others to see it as well:
“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.”‘ “
The letter keenly expresses his disappointment in the clergy, most especially, as King viewed as the church leaders as the best able to further the civil rights issue.
“Now, I say that as somebody who appreciates that the LGBT community very legitimately feels these issues in very personal terms. So it’s not my place to counsel patience. One of my favorite pieces of literature is “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Dr. King had to battle people counseling patience and time. And he rightly said that time is neutral. And things don’t automatically get better unless people push to try to get things better.”
So what do you think, up for a historical reading of the letter from Birmingham Jail to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day?