Quotes from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. day I like to try to call attention to some of the writings and statements of Dr. King that illustrate the more radical side of his person and work than we usually get on this day with its endless replays of the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s not that the speech is deficient, but the sad truth seems to be that we have so emphasized King as a “nice guy” with a dream that people will “be nice to each other” that we have lost track of how radical a figure he really was, how dangerous he was to unjust power structures, and the precise reasons why he became so influential in his time. While comparisons between King and Jesus have definitely been overdone in some circles, what we’ve done to King is not entirely different from what we’ve done to Jesus in that regard.

This year’s celebration of Dr. King is particularly poignant, as it comes one day before the inauguration of the first African-American president, Barack Obama. While I must say I am disturbed by what seems to me can only be described as a “messianic fervor” surrounding Obama’s becoming president, it would be amiss to not recognize the monumental significance of the event when less than half a century ago, in the lifetimes of many people who are with us today, it was a significant event for black Americans to even vote in many parts of the country (let alone run for a major office!). Obama himself is not the fulfillment of King’s dream, despite the rhetoric I’ve heard coming fast and loose from many lips and pens over the past few days, but his becoming president still in many ways has to be seen as a watershed moment in American race relations.

This year I want to post some quotes from King’s influential “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, as well as a link to the full text. This letter, written in April 1963, outlined the basis of King’s belief that people must strive for justice in the streets, as well as in the courts, in response to a piece by eight white clergy that accused “outsiders” of “instigating” demonstrations that undermined law and order. The authors of the piece, entitled “A Call For Unity”, recognized that injustice existed but deplored the demonstrations and argued that justice should be sought through the legal system, not in defiance of it.

In the spirit of my belief that power rarely concedes without struggle and must be challenged on all fronts, whether in the streets, the courts, the press, or wherever else it may be found, here are some quotes from King’s “Letter”.

…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 anywhere within its bounds.

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.

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 so to 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.

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.”

Full text from the University of Pennsylvania


One Response

  1. Good entry. It fits with a lot of what I’ve been thinking the past few days as well. While I’m thrilled that America has reached the point where we can elect a black president – there is still so much work to do. One man in one office is not the full realization of that dream – though it amazing progress in the dream.

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