One of the most inspiring finds I uncovered while exploring Minneapolis’s “Little Free Libraries” was “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Coming in under 30 pages and not much bigger than a smart phone it is a quick read. Yet, I seem to learn more with each reading.
"The time is always ripe to do right."
Dr. King originally wrote this piece in 1963, in the margins of a newspaper while incarcerated for “parading without a permit.” It was his response to a group of white Alabama clergymen who argued that the fight against racial segregation should be fought in the courts, not in the streets. His ecclesiastical critics considered the demonstrations in Birmingham “extreme” in nature. At first, King was initially disappointed to be considered “an extremist” but became satisfied with the label citing Jesus Christ, who as “an extremist for love,” was crucified for “the crime of extremism.”
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.”
Dr. King mentions the history of civil disobedience: Early Christians – who when entered towns were considered by those in power to be “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators” were “willing to face hungry lions than to submit to unjust Roman Laws.” He also mentions Socrates who was put to death for “corrupting the minds of youth.” He also mentions the Boston Tea Party (who protested unjust laws). He continues to compare unjust laws vs. just laws citing that “We should never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal.”
These clergyman had argued for more time for authorities to react…Another had written Dr. King that A Christianity needed two thousand years “to accomplish all that it has.” King notes that “we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” He continued “For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages.”
On top of two centuries of working without wages, African-Americans were also subjected to Jim Crow laws, discriminatory state and federal laws that prevented them from education, housing, GI benefits (Read: The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein), were lynched, and incarcerated for crimes they either did not commit or were given extraordinary sentences (Read: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson).
Dr. King was deeply disappointed in the white moderate, not the member of the KKK or the White Citizens Council (a white supremist organization of the time), who was more dedicated to ‘order’ than to justice and he “had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
He was also disappointed in the white church (with a few notable exceptions) and its leadership for “standing on the sideline.” He questioned “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”
Also disappointed in “warmly commending” the police for “keeping order” and “preventing violence” yet would not be so commending if they had seen the inhumane treatment in the jails, dogs biting the defenseless/non-violent protestors, and the treatment of the old and the young.
He gave praise to white journalists who had written about the Black struggle (each one worthy of their own story, but I looked them up to provide a brief background and some of their works to check out):
Ralph McGill – A anti-segregationist editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper.
Lillian Smith – A writer known for her novel Strange Fruit (1944), which dealt with the then-forbidden and controversial theme of interracial romance.
Harry Golden – A writer and publisher who spoke out against segregation and Jim Crow laws.
James McBride Dabbs – A writer known for his book The Southern Heritage (1958) which was highly regarded for its view on civil rights.
Anne Braden – A civil rights activist, journalist, and educator dedicated to the cause of racial equality. In 1951 she was first arrested for protesting against the execution of an African American. In 1954, she and her husband Carl Braden bought a house on behalf of an African-American family (Andrew & Charlotte Wade) who, in those days, were prevented from purchasing their own home. Once discovered, the family was subjected to burned crosses in their yard, shot out windows and the home was eventually blown up. In the end, authorities were more concerned with the Braden’s connection to the communist party (it was during McCarthyism) and were convicted of sedition.
Sarah Patton Boyle - An author and civil rights activist who spoke out against segregation.
“Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Dr. King closes Letter from Birmingham Jail with an optimism that “we will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation” and to “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of prejudice will soon pass away and mis-understanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities.” Unfortunately, nearly 60 years later, we seem to be stuck in a time warp of 1950’s rhetoric. “Fear, order, Socialism, Communism” seem to be the key words of today (I can’t help but think of the song “Exhuming McCarthy”) and people of color, Native Americans, women, disabled, LGBTQ STILL suffer from a lack of/slow social progress.
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