Remembering Dr. King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail

Since the poll I put out on Instagram yesterday ended in a tie, I thought it would be more worthwhile to use today’s post discussing one of America’s most memorable civil rights advocates: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While today is designated primarily as a day of service and remembrance in Dr. King’s name, it is also intended to be a day of discussion. Thus, below are three of my favorite quotes from one of MLK’s most memorable works – Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

1) Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 

MLK used this powerful statement in response to a criticism he faced while protesting segregation in Alabama. Some of the white religious leaders in the South felt that it was inappropriate for King to conduct demonstrations in Alabama, and they labelled him as an outsider who was seeking to cause confrontation in their neighborhoods. This sentiment was of course not only factually inaccurate, but it was also morally mistaken. Factually, according to his letter, King was invited to Alabama by a local affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization in which King was the president. Morally, King understood that the interconnectedness of American culture meant that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” and thus, the intense segregation that was taking place in Alabama needed to be addressed for both residents of the state and citizens of the nation.

2) In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. 

In contrast to some of the other civil rights activists of his time, MLK was a strong supporter of non-violent activism. In Birmingham, as well as the many other cities in which he sought to address racial inequities, Dr. King began his reform efforts by attempting to negotiate change with the political and economic leaders of the city. Once he and his team realized that not enough of these leaders were willing to negotiate, Dr. King organized direct, non-violent, action in an effort to drive these individuals to the negotiating table. While seeking to avoid violence, King was not afraid of being controversial: “I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth … the purpose of action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

3) There are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.” 

Whenever activists for reformed laws engage in civil disobedience a certain type of irony takes place. As MLK writes in his letter, “one may well ask, ‘how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others [which outlaw segregation]?” In answering this question, Dr. King acknowledges that, unlike people, not all laws are created equal. He writes, among other qualification, that “an unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected?” In this manner, King establishes a position similar to the message preached by our nation’s Founding Fathers regarding representation and tyrannical rule. With these sentiments in mind, King was willing to protest against the laws of Birmingham while knowing that engaging in such actions risked time in jail. Thus, the image at the top of this post is not one of a man who committed a wrong act in Alabama; it is a picture of a man who was committed to setting things right in Alabama at all costs.

Of course, Dr. King said much more in the many influential speeches and writings that he made throughout his life. He also said a lot more in this specific letter; he called out violent activists within his community, and he strongly criticized “the white moderate” community.

MLK’s letter can be read in full here.

Poll for tomorrow:

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