The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began writing the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in the margins of newspapers, on scraps of paper, paper towels and slips of yellow legal paper smuggled into his cell, where he was kept in solitary confinement after being arrested April 12, 1963, on charges of violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations.
The day after his arrest, eight prominent white clergy members placed an ad in the Birmingham News, accusing King of being an outside agitator whose demonstrations were “unwise and untimely.” Infuriated by their words, King unleashed his literary wrath on the clergymen. Writing with the light from the sun that fell through the cell’s bars, King quoted from memory biblical passages and quotes from Socrates, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine to bolster his argument. He wrote:
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.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward 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; 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.
On April 16, 1963, King’s powerful words were smuggled out of the jail by Clarence Jones, King’s legal counsel and trusted adviser. Jones took the notes to the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who deciphered King’s writing. “I was the only one in Birmingham who could read his chicken-scratch writing,” Walker would later explain. Walker’s secretary, Willie Pearl Mackey, then typed up the notes. The 20 pages of mimeographed copy were circulated first as a pamphlet and later published in the New York Post, Ebony magazine and in King’s 1964 memoir “Why We Can’t Wait.”
In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King offered a scathing critique of “white moderates” unwilling to do the right thing that still resonates today:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or 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; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
To read the whole letter, which is archived at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, go here. Or you can listen to a recording of King reading the letter here.
King would have celebrated his 89th birthday on Monday. He was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39.
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