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The Time is Now: Thoughts on Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’

A great deal has been and will be written about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by others far more qualified; however, I am honored to have been asked to share a few thoughts in his honor of his birth, his memory, and above all, his great legacy.  I have chosen to examine his eloquent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in order to encourage more people to consider the lessons of this iconic document. (Thanks to Jeanne Arnold, Chief Diversity Officer at Gettysburg College who supported my participation in the Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation Institute at the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation in February, 2020.  I also want to honor the memory of Adrienne Camel; and the efforts of Jean Odom; and all those in Adams County who have worked long and hard to honor Dr. King’s dream.)


When considering the big picture of Dr. King’s efforts, four major Civil Rights “direct actions” come to mind: the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the Freedom Rides; the Birmingham “Project C” and the Selma Voting Rights campaign.  Each campaign involved many individuals, and each contains compelling and inspiring stories.  Here I’ll consider the history leading up to King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” and the aftermath of the campaign in Birmingham.  It’s fascinating to me how often King was reluctant or had mixed feelings about these different situations, but he went ahead and did what he felt was the best thing to do (or not do), though other activists sometimes strongly disagreed with him (and he with them).


I like to remember that Reverend King was at one time a 26-year-old doctoral student from Atlanta, trying to finish his dissertation with a wife and newborn baby, serving as a pastor at his very first church, which was in Montgomery, Alabama, and not particularly keen on being a community spokesperson. King had been initially advised that the church he’d been assigned to would prefer he preach on Plato rather than politics, and that suited the bookish King just fine, as he enjoyed discussing the theological ideas in his dissertation.  But when the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association (established as a more moderate and local alternative to the NAACP) convinced him in the fall of 1955 to assume its presidency after the arrest of Rosa Parks, King took to the pulpit in defense of the boycott.  Here is how journalist Diane McWhorter describes that speech in her book CARRY ME HOME, a history of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham: 

After dampening the eager audience with a bland recitation of the facts, he paused. ‘And you know, my friends,’ he continued, voice welling,’ there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression;’ Yeses and amens tested the stillness, and then there erupted a rolling roar over an undertow of pounding feet. ‘For many years, we have shown amazing patience…,’ he said. ‘But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice…If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations the historians will pause and say, ‘There lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.  This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.’ The modern Civil Rights movement had been born.”

With the eventual success and publicity of the bus boycott in Montgomery, (after more than a year of struggle where over forty thousand Black people walked to work in all kinds of weather, some losing their jobs or otherwise paying a price for their refusal to ride), activists were inspired to continue fighting for equal access.  The next big action involved the Freedom Riders in the early 1960s, who sought to upend the segregation of interstate buses as well as facilities associated with them (waiting rooms, restaurants).  King did not participate in these campaigns, as he was still on probation from a previous arrest; some also speculate that he did not want to jeopardize ongoing negotiations with President Kennedy over civil rights legislation.  Julian Bond, then 21 years old and a Freedom Rider, noted that some young people were disappointed in King for not coming along.  Birmingham’s infamously brutal Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, stood by while members of the Klan beat the Freedom Riders.  Ultimately, these protests led to the desegregation of buses and bus facilities, as well as the creation of the first Interstate Commerce Commission by the federal government to assure compliance to the new laws.  


In the spring of 1963, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth finally persuaded King to join him in that community’s efforts to integrate public spaces in Birmingham, a city King had not wanted to engage with because he felt it was too dangerous.  After all, Birmingham had earned the nickname of “Bombingham” because of the myriad bombings of homes and churches from the late 1940s onward.  Shuttlesworth was King’s colleague in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group formed by King, Shuttlesworth, and others to coordinate and support nonviolent direct action as a method of desegregation.  Shuttlesworth had worked for years on desegregating schools, transportation and lunch counters, and had survived several attacks on his life.   After Governor Wallace’s inauguration in January, 1963 (at which he famously promised to uphold segregation in Alabama “forever,”) several white clergy from Birmingham published “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” in which they urged those who opposed segregation to pursue their desires through the court system solely. On April 2, Bull Connor was finally defeated at the polls and was supposed to step down, but in what would turn out ultimately to be an advantage for the civil rights movement, Bull Connor announced that he had no intention of leaving office. King and Shuttlesworth knew Connor would be the perfect leader to showcase the violence and brutality of the Birmingham police, as he had proven himself time and again to be.

The very next day, the “Birmingham Campaign” began (April 3, 1963; it was also known as Project “C” for confrontation.) On that day, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (with Shuttlesworth as its president) published “The Birmingham Manifesto,” which highlighted some of the same ideas as King’s letter to come.  The day of the protest arrived: Good Friday, April 12, 1963, and on that day was also published a letter written by eight white clergy entitled “A Call for Unity,” urging African Americans to stop protesting.  (These clergy were actually the more open-minded of the white population at the time.) King and Shuttlesworth were arrested on that Good Friday, and King wrote his famous letter from jail in direct response to the Good Friday letter from the white clergy.


In this letter, King counters three major criticisms from the clergymen.  Then he formulates a four-step process, which later became the basis for his six steps of nonviolence.  The principles he laid out illustrate “the will” behind nonviolence; the steps are known as “the skill.”  

King began his letter by saying that normally he didn’t answer criticism of his ideas, as he received so much that he’d scarce have time for anything else.  But since he felt that the letter writers were “men of genuine good will,” he determined to attempt to elucidate his reasons to them “in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” I appreciate the respect he uses in addressing these adversaries.  The three critiques of the protesters were as follows:

  1. They criticized King for being an outsider (what was often referred to as an “outside agitator,” i.e. someone from outside the community coming in supposedly to stir up unrest that is really none of their business);
  2. They considered the protests “unwise and untimely;”
  3. They believed that, as they had expressed in their prior missive, the Black community should work through the justice system and not through direct action on the streets.

To the first criticism King responded: he was invited by friends, who were members the community (because of his role as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), to come help with the campaign in Birmingham.  More importantly, however, he wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”  The injustice called him because he recognized that everyone is connected; thus, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and “anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”  Hence, it is our duty as U.S. citizens, he was saying, to ensure that everyone else in our country is able to exercise all the rights and privileges guaranteed us all by the constitution.  It is good for us to remember such sentiments nowadays.

In response to the other two criticisms, King outlined the four basic steps of any nonviolent campaign: 1. “Collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist; 2. Negotiation; 3.  Self-purification; and 4. Direct action.”  He agreed that negotiation and working through the justice system was the best way, the way he favored the most; however, they had tried step 2 again and again to no avail.  He explained that “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue” (emphasis mine).  Direct action only comes about after negotiation has been attempted.  Direct action “seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored;” direct action points at the injustice.  It reveals it. It forces the community to admit it, because it makes it so plain that it can no longer be denied.  Its purpose is “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”  When negotiation has not worked because those committing injustice will not recognize and work with its victims, then a more confrontational method is called for.

In response to the idea that this direct action was “untimely,” King noted that “lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” “Freedom,” he wrote,“is never voluntarily given up by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  Also, he added, “we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.”  He went on to list the multiple atrocities—from lynchings to police brutality to cruel poverty to the multiple humiliations suffered daily from racism to talking to your little girl about why white people are so mean sometimes and beginning “to see ominous clouds of inferiority to form in her little mental sky”—and suggested that perhaps, once you’ve experienced such things, “then you will find why we find it difficult to wait.”  

He wrote very eloquently of the difference between “just laws” and “unjust laws,” noting that Hitler and his ilk did a lot of evil that was legal, though not moral.  He also castigated those white moderates who kept telling them to wait, assuring African Americans that everything will simply turn out all right eventually, sustaining the myth that those in power will willingly give up that power without concerted and concentrated effort by people committed to liberty and justice for all.  When he complained of these clergy calling their activities “extreme,” it brings to mind those who so sharply criticized Colin Kaepernick for his “extreme” act of simply kneeling to protest police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.  King knew that if they had not advocated a nonviolent approach, “many streets of the South would be flowing with blood,” noting the discipline and restraint of these supposed “extremists.” However, he then reconsidered the moniker of extremist, and noted that they would be in extremely good company with such a badge, for “was not Jesus an extremist for love?” “Was not Amos an extremist for justice?” Were not Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson “extremists”?  So, he wrote, the question becomes “will we be extremists for hate or for love?…for the preservation of injustice—or for the extension of justice?”  Ultimately, he voiced his disappointment in the white church and those who praised the restraint of law enforcement.  Instead, he offered, the ones who should be commended were the Black demonstrators, with their “sublime courage,” their “willingness to suffer” and “their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation,” concluding, “One day the South will recognize its real heroes.”

These are just some highlights.  The whole letter warrants your attention.  You will see parallels with today. You will imagine him, sitting in a jail cell, away from his family and friends, scribbling in the margins of newspapers and on scraps of paper.  Though it wasn’t published until two months later, this document persists as an eloquent essay, comparable to Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience,” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Zola’s “J’accuse” in defense of Dreyfus, according to McWhorter. The impact of this one letter was great, and it still inspires and demands action today. 


A couple of weeks later, on May 2, 1963, the Children’s Crusade began.  This direct action involved peaceful marches in the hopes of gaining access to the mayor of Birmingham to advocate for desegregation of public spaces and the end to job discrimination based on race.  Bull Connor ordered police to spray the children and teenagers with powerful water hoses, hit them with batons and sick dogs on them.  Dr. King and other civil rights leaders were initially adamantly opposed to involving children in the marches, but the children and teens, ranging in age from 7-18, had been trained thoroughly in nonviolent protest by their leader James Bevel.  Also fewer adults had been willing to risk their jobs by marching (and children had no jobs to lose), so this crusade helped invigorate the cause.  When King saw how effective the protests were in terms of how much publicity and public outrage was fomented and how many adults were inspired to join in upon seeing the brave children and teenagers, he changed his mind about the effectiveness of this strategy.  One of the horrible outcomes was the tragic bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (where the first children and teenagers had gathered for the first protest) resulting in the murder of four young girls on Sunday, September 15, 1963.  The men who targeted the church did so deliberately to terrorize the children and youth who so courageously joined the fight for equal rights.  Ultimately, however, these direct protests led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legislated the end to legal segregation in all public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origins. 


Through the efforts of Rev. Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, James Bevel, the children of Birmingham, and many, many other activists, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the death knoll of Jim Crow segregation laws.   On Dec. 10, 1964, Dr. King received the Noble Peace Prize, which he accepted on behalf of the movement.  Because this is an occasion for celebrating and honoring his name, we lift up these achievements, knowing full well that, were Dr. King still alive today, celebrating his ninety-second birthday, his voice would be raised with the marching orders we still need to follow in order to achieve his dream of the “Beloved Community,” where freedom truly does ring for everyone.  His memory reminds us that, as he said, “There is no right time to do the right thing.”  The time is now.

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Susan Russell is a Professor in the Theater Arts Department at Gettysburg College.

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