My Commentary on King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
By Ken K. Gourdin
As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, I have determined to treat such special occasions as Martin Luther King Day as more than simply “a(nother) day off.” One way I’ve tried to do this is to read MLK’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” each time the holiday rolls around. I thought, however, while such reflection is a worthy pastime on the holiday, that I would do more than simply read the letter. Below, I have excerpted or summarized what I consider to be its most significant passages and commented briefly on each one.
In addition to this Introduction, this essay includes the following sections. The next section is a comment on justice and threats thereto; the third section is a reminder that not all “tension” is created equal; the fourth section is King’s indictment of those who accuse him of impatience; the fifth section is a comment on King’s commitment to respect for law, and how that respect is not inconsistent with civil disobedience; the sixth section is King’s indictment of those who accuse him of extremism; and the seventh and final section is his indictment of the passivity he saw in “the church” and in too many of its members and leaders.
2. Injustice, Justice, and Threats to the Latter
Letter from A Birmingham Jail was prompted by a letter from some of King’s fellow clergymen who opposed his activities in Birmingham, calling him an “outside agitator.” Because it was one of the most violent epicenters in the struggle for black civil rights, many labeled the city derisively, and not without good reason, with the epithet “Bombingham,” and King himself pointed out (though he did not provided sources or statistics for the allegation) that “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.”1 He pointed out that the reason he was in Birmingham is because he was invited to come. Then he wrote:
. . . I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . . [I am here because I] am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, 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.
Then he delivered perhaps the letter’s most memorable and oft-quoted line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, and continued:
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.
3. Not All “Tension” is Negative: Constructive Tension
King pointed out that only after other efforts—which the clergymen who criticized him might have considered less “activist” (my term)—had met with only limited success was the decision made to engage in more active forms of protest, such as merchant boycotts and sit-ins. Even then, King wrote, the decision to go forward was further delayed by other factors.
In response to the clergymen’s criticism that King was increasing tension between the races, he wrote that “there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth,” and wrote that the purpose of such “tension,” rather than further escalating already-tense situations, was to prompt those in power to negotiate with African American leaders over their concerns and, most importantly and eloquently, to “help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
King also pointed out that “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily,” and continued, “It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Of such tension, later in the letter he writes: “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
4. No Better Time Than Now to Confront Segregation and Racism
“We know through painful experience,” he wrote pointedly, “that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In response to pleas for patience, he wrote, “For years now I gave 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.’”
Similarly, later in the letter, responding to those who argued that time itself would cure the ills he fought against, he argues against what he calls “the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.” He continues:
Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
King argued eloquently that positive change, rather than being an inevitable product of the passage of time, must be actively sought. The mere passage of time, rather than bringing about progress, instead engenders its opposite:
Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be [coworkers] with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
5. Respect for Law – Just Laws vs. Unjust Laws: Segregation and Dehumanization
King wrote of how to determine a law’s justness, stating that the test for a law’s justness hinges on its effect on the personality:
A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
King pointed out the dehumanizing effects of segregation, saying that segregation allows those who put it into practice to treat its victims as less than human. He wrote:
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.
King pointed out that, at its very heart, segregation is sinful, writing, “Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”
King said that civil disobedience is not disrespect for law. Rather, it is possible for one to be civilly disobedient to an unjust law while at the same time holding a deep respect for laws that are just. King’s implication is that while obedience to just laws promotes civil peace and order, peaceful civil disobedience to unjust laws can do the same in the long run by rectifying wrongs those laws visit on the classes of society they victimize. He wrote:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law . . . That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
6. Passive Acceptance More Dangerous Than Passive Resistance; “Extremism”
Perhaps King sensed that his most receptive audience, rather than being found among active purveyors of racism, separatism, and hate, instead was to be found among people of good will who nonetheless advocated maintaining the status quo for the sake of continued peace and order. However, King did not spare his criticism for those who held this view, writing that tacit acceptance of the status quo was nearly a larger threat to societal progress in the field of racial equality than the open notoriousness outright racism and hatred promoted by organizations such as White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan. He wrote of the white “moderate,” who
is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
As bad as the evils of segregation and discrimination are, King clearly felt that an even bigger evil in the light of these injustices was perpetrated—passively rather than actively—by standing around, silent and immobile (except, perhaps, to verbally encourage others to do the same). Perhaps King had in mind Edmund Burke’s old axiom that “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.” Further, King also critiqued the logic of his critics who maintained that protest (although peaceful) sparked violence, asking,
[I]s this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a 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 inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink 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 crucifixion?
King denounced those who called him an extremist, arguing that he sought a tenable middle ground between those—both black and white—who favored continued passive acceptance of the status quo and those who resorted to violence, not only as a means of achieving the positive changes King sought, but also as a means of venting their pent-up frustrations at the treatment they received as a result of the status quo. King said that if society didn’t allow the feelings engendered by such injustices to be dealt with through such peaceful means such as sit-ins, peaceful protests, peaceful marches, prayer vigils and pilgrimages, and freedom rides, it would find an outlet, instead, through violent and lawless forms of expression. Sadly, it appears that since King’s death, those who favor violence as an instrument of social change have won out.
King noted that John Bunyan, his namesake Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Christ were all “extremists” in their day, and asked, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” To the extent he was an extremist, King saw himself (indeed, few if any, would argue against the proposition that he was an “extremist” for love and for justice.
King also denounced the nonviolence of those who oppressed him and those who stood with him, not because he believed that they should be met with violence nor because he was ungrateful to those who exercised restraint, but rather because they did so in the service of an unjust cause. He wrote:
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.
Contrasting those who employed nonviolence in an effort to maintain the status quo with the nonviolence of those who sought to change it, King wrote, “As T. S. Eliot has said: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.’ I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.
7. The Fight for Equality and the Church
Given the letter’s audience, it is unsurprising that King reserved some fairly harsh criticism for “the church.” After pointing out exceptions to the idle stance of so many of the churches and their clergy with respect to the evils he confronted, King took pains to emphasize that he wasn’t finding fault with people and leaders of faith as a critic, but as an advocate:
. . . I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
King wondered aloud if, in supporting legal decisions mandating desegregation and equal treatment, the churches, their leaders, and their members were not doing the right thing for the wrong reason. He wrote, “I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.’”
He offered a stinging indictment of the church for sitting on the sidelines during the struggle for equality, writing that
. . . the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
King did, however, note that some religious leaders broke ranks with their fellows and determined to not sit idly by on the sidelines during the struggle for racial equality. He wrote, “But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.”
King closes by making it clear where his overriding allegiance lay (that he feared offending God much more than he feared offending his fellow clergymen), and implying that any rhetorical excess ought to be read as having been motivated by a righteous zeal. His penultimate paragraph reads:
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.2
|1.||This and all subsequent quotations and citations are taken from Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 16, 1963) “Letter from [A] Birmingham Jail,” accessed on line at the following address on January 20, 2014: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html. As this version of the letter is not paginated but, rather, is contained in a single html file, no Id. citations are given below.|
|2.||While I could be misreading him, I don’t think the following passage near the end of the letter is worthy of the high ideals and lofty prose which otherwise is contained throughout. Here, King seems, instead, to be indulging in a bit of disingenuousness and self-pity. He writes:
I consider myself to be a religious and introspective person, so I certainly can understand writing long letters, thinking long thoughts, and praying long prayers, but if he honestly felt the letter wasn’t worth his readers’ time, why send it?