Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King

I have known of this long letter which has been published in book form for some time, it is regularly quoted by others, but until recently I had not read it. I am so glad I now have and would encourage you to do the same.

The letter was originally written whilst King was in jail in 1963 for disturbing the peace, he was leading peaceful demonstrations against racial segregation in America. He wrote the letter on the margins of a newspaper as a response to six white church leaders who were saying the protests should stop and the battle should be fought in the courts not the streets. Kings arguments are articulate, profound and still relevant, as injustice is still prevalent in our society.

He explains his strategy for confronting injustice “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” By self-purification he means workshops to ensure that they didn’t retaliate and were willing to go to jail. They were willing to pay the price.

He explains the basic problem “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” A profound thought, which impacts so much, explaining why inequalities in society are so difficult to get rid of.

King superbly paints the picture of what injustice feels like for the victim, helps his readers to place themselves in someone else’s shoes.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed towards gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace towards gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. 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….. then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

I have found that I can so easily ignore or be ignorant of injustices until I get an insight into what it means to be a victim.

Another interesting insight is that he feels he is standing in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community, “One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect… that they have adjusted to segregation…… The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence.”

I am sure this polarisation is true in any community that is the victims of injustice.

His critique of white liberals and the white church is something else needing reflection, am I, are we guilty of the same thing? I think we are!

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride towards freedom is not … the Ku Klux Klanner, but 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….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Luke warm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

He bluntly summarises, “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.”

He lays down the challenge of what he says the church should be like, “There was a time when the church was very powerful- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…. 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.”

King then goes on to respond to the accusation of being an extremist. He says he has gained a measure of satisfaction from the label, saying it groups him with other extremists! Such as Jesus, an extremist for love; Amos an extremist for justice; Paul an extremist for the gospel; Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson are other extremists he would seek to emulate.

“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?”

There is such a challenge here for the church today, especially the church of privilege, will we be sacrificial, or will we become maintainers of the status quo? Will we put ourselves in the shoes of victims of injustice and understand what it feels like from their perspective? What sort of extremist will we be? Will we be relevant or irrelevant?

Thank you for your wisdom Martin Luther King, over 50 years later it still speaks to us.

  1. Steph G

    Thank you Tiny for sharing this…. I have now read the letter for the first time – and whilst my heart ached at the pain and suffering I thank God for MLKJ and all those who ‘Peacefully’ protested for my world is different because of them.

    The end focus on the white church and the church as a whole really was also hard hitting and made me really question and challenge much.

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