Martin Luther King, Jr.
LETTER FROM A BIRMINGHAM JAIL
In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was hauled off to jail in the aftermath of the Birmingham confrontation with Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor and municipal authorities. Beatings, hosings, and the unleashing of vicious dogs could not deter thousands of demonstrating Negroes from risking serious injury, even death, in peaceful parades into the heart of downtown Birmingham. When King was criticized by a group of white clergymen who blamed him for precipitating the violence, he penned a subdued, but passionate letter of reply to his colleagues, smuggling it out on toilet tissue, the margins of newspapers, indeed any scrap of paper available to him. Excerpts of the letter indicate more than just extreme despair and anxiety; they offer eloquent testimony to the flaming moral concern for oppressed humanity which was King’s legacy to his fellow Americans.
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and African are moving with jet like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and- buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.”
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that “Funtown” is closed to colored children, and see the depressing cloud of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored,” when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobody-ness”-then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of the Crucifixion?
The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice-or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified for the same crime-the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries, our foreparents labored in this country without wages; they made cotton “king,” and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality, they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.