On the eve of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and President Obama’s second inauguration, it seems fitting to reread Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, one of the most important political documents of the twentieth century. It’s all the more fitting, I think, because we are approaching fifty years since Dr. King wrote that letter, and yet so much of what he said is still relevant a half century later.
Although Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech is better known and, perhaps, more uplifting and inspirational, his Letter From Birmingham Jail is more pointed and, I think, more clearly expresses where the civil rights movement was at that moment in time and what it sought to accomplish from a practical standpoint. It’s a manifesto, in the sense that it provides a clear rallying cry for social justice (much like the I Have A Dream speech); but it’s also focused on methodology – on how the movement sought to accomplish its goals and what was standing in its way. In fact, the most compelling aspect of the Letter From Birmingham Jail may be its entirely justifiable tone of frustration.
Specifically, Dr. King takes many of his contemporaries to task for obstructing progress, but reserves his harshest criticism for those who failed sufficiently to promote it – and that sort of criticism is never easy to confront. He also is not shy about discussing the need to create tension in order to move forward to a more just society, chiding those who “prefer[ ] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” And he utterly lays waste to the argument that he and his colleagues should be “patient,” should wait for justice to come in time:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” …
… Perhaps 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 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. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. …
Perhaps the best known aspect of the Letter From Birmingham Jail, though, is Dr. King’s exposition on the distinction between following (and disobeying) just and unjust laws:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Well do I recall grappling with that concept in law school, which was more than a few years ago. As a lawyer whose primary responsibility is to promote respect for the law and the legal system I still don’t know how to discern when and under what circumstances one should disregard the law, though I agree with the general concept. But I note that Dr. King also writes:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. 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.
That’s the essence of civil disobedience: Not to disobey the law with impunity, which accomplishes nothing but getting away with disobeying the law, but to accept the consequences of disobeying the law as a means of demonstrating that the law is unjust. It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to do that.
In the end, though, the Letter From Birmingham Jail isn’t all about frustration and the need to create tension and to disobey unjust laws. Because there’s also this passage, near the beginning, which provides a unifying theme for everything else Dr. King talks about:
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. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 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.
The “we” in that passage isn’t African Americans generally, nor is it the broader religious community to whom the letter is addressed; it’s all of us. He’s not talking about any one particular community, but “the interrelatedness of all communities.” And that, I think, is what’s most remarkable about Dr. King’s philosophy – that he embraced the entirety of his country despite the fact that the majority of his country wouldn’t embrace him. In 1963 it would have been easy for any thinking African American to reject America altogether, given that nearly a hundred years after the civil war segregation was the norm everywhere – de jure in the South, de facto in the North.
But instead, Dr. King expresses a tremendous amount of faith in America:
We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.
In that sense, as radical as his Letter From Birmingham Jail may have been at the time (and, perhaps, still is), it is equally one of the most patriotic political statements imaginable: That despite our country’s most glaring flaws, it’s not only worth saving and perfecting, it’s possible to save and perfect it.