Today’s suggested reading is one of the most well read letters in American History: Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
King’s record of nonviolence is one of the most commendable parts of American history. However, it is often conflated with conformity, nonaggression and civility.
No doubt, the protestors who followed in his footsteps felt they were being civil. But if you ask those at that time who opposed them, they were anything but.
When we think of great American writers or thinkers, King should be among the first to come to mind. Like Franklin, he offered wit and Wisdom. Like Twain, he offered honesty and vivid descriptions. Like Poe, Dickenson and Angelou, his words kept off the page with a graceful cadence. And like Madison, Hamilton or Lincoln, his ideas were well constructed and thoroughly advocated. And he had the earthiness of Lee and Faulkner.
We’ll start three paragraphs in:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
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.
He sets the reader up with his moral gravitas there.
There’s no escaping it. He’s not just telling you why he’s in the struggle, but why you must be as well. Then he nails you eith the rhetorical right hook.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
Oh, he will take no prisoners. Makes you think about today’s reactions to the Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ experience at the Red Hen restaurant.
After talking about the process of nonviolence, he brings up the issues African Americans faced in Birmingham, including unsolved church bombings. He takes the reader through all the steps that havd been taken.
That brings you to the gut punch.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
The letter continues on after that. It is full of wisdom that is much needed today. Please give it a read.