Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an open letter written in response to criticisms of the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. It specifically addresses concerns raised by eight local white Christian and Jewish religious leaders. In the letter, King masterfully builds his argument for the use of nonviolent, direct action on sound reasoning and a firm understanding of Christian ethics. He cites Socrates, Martin Luther, Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Augustine, and various biblical prophets. It is a literary masterpiece, and yet reading it leaves me feeling angry and sad.
Throughout the text, it appears that King is careful not to question his audience’s character or motives. He had good reason to be suspicious of both.
In one passage, King responds to the charge that he is impatiently seeking equal rights by describing life for African Americans in explicit detail. He writes: “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 with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…”
Given these circumstances, how could King’s efforts be considered impatient?
Remember, this was Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. It was the year of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four black girls, which one could only describe as an act of terrorism. In fact, bombings of black homes and churches were so widespread that the city became known as “Bombingham.” It was not hard to see that blacks suffered from abuse. Without any guarantee that he would prevail, King sat in a jail cell in Birmingham and wrote a thoughtful letter.
King’s words reveal a heartbreaking aspect of his life. That is, he was an extraordinarily gifted man that committed a tremendous amount of energy to carefully explaining an idea that should have been obvious to everyone. Today, it is an idea that can be summed up with a hashtag. It is that African Americans deserve dignity and equal protection under the law. Because the 14th and 15th Amendments exist, the Civil Rights Movement should not have been necessary. Sadly, as a consequence of King’s role in it, he was terrorized, slandered, jailed, and, ultimately murdered. Many would likely agree that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death was tragic. Fewer people may recognize the tragedy in every day he spent fighting for civil rights.
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