Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter From A Birmingham Jail
“Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
“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.
“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
So wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. fifty years ago this coming April.
As we remember this remarkable man in the coming week, I reread his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail which was a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963. These clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. They went on to criticize King, calling him an “outsider” who was causing trouble in the streets of Birmingham.
When told to be patient and non-confrontational, King wrote,
“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.”
It is hard to find a more powerful example than the Letter of how language and rhetoric can be employed so strongly. In recent years, I have read extensively from the works of Jim Corder, professor of English at Texas Christian University and author of Yonder: Life on the Far Side of Change. In it, he tries to show us how to make sense of the past, both personal and in general, and seek ways to better understand the momentous changes we have studied and even witnessed in the tumult of the 20th century and into the present.
So in rereading the Birmingham Letter, I followed Corder’s tips on parsing language and found myself lingering over King’s powerful word play and vivid phrasing. Corder taught Rhetoric which was to him far more than argument. It was rather a whole system by which a world is made and known, a culture identified through its use of language. As I noted in an earlier Dew essay, Corder provides one way of looking back at history and how events of the past, often long before our births, have shaped our lives. In this way, he tells how the arts have played such a critical role in making us human.
I think of King when Corder writes in an 1981 essay that
“the humanities are forms of study, meditation, creation, and instruction that value the human voice, in whatever medium they keep trying to pronounce a human into existence. That is to say, the humanities value the texts of human composition; the humanities hold at their center human discourses and compositions.”
With these thoughts in mind, I could almost see the mind of King at work as he sat in that jail and wrote his letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper available to him. King was both a grand orator and a commanding writer. In the Letter, he falls back on classical references, Biblical accounts, and moving examples of our own historical record to build his case that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
I was especially aware of how he used various literary devices to drive his point home. He repeats key words, often inverting them for emphasis, employs literary chiasmus constructions–concepts in reverse order or in a modified form–to give fresh emphasis to his ideas, skillfully uses alliteration so that the ear as well as the mind is engaged, and speaks in a conversational manner that is disarming. Having just seen a production of Julius Caesar, I suspect, too, that King learned a few pointers from Shakespeare, especially from Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral when he referred to the assassins as “honorable men” and then went on to show how they were anything but.
Returning to my notes from Corder, I can see so much of how King employed his education to confront the evils of segregation. He fell back on the arts and literature to make his powerful rebuttal and to make his irrefutable case that moral change had to come now. He did so in his non-violent way in the Letter as he showed white America the dark side of its soul. He enabled us to see that others also existed and deserved the same rights as whites and could no longer be treated as objects for manipulation, parts of society’s abuse of law and custom.
Who can read these words and not be moved:
“. . . 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 and even kill your black brothers and sisters; 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; 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 ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and 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 are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
As this country moves forward with a new Inauguration and an opportunity for great change in the days ahead, I trust King’s words will continue to play to our better angels and infuse our sense of being as we fight on to confront the wrongs of today.
“. . . 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. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers 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.”
To read the entire speech, please click here.
- Photo: this image is from the cover of Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation by Jonathan Rieder (originally licensed from UPI/Corbis-Bettmann) and used here as "fair use" of a promotional image.