Letter from a Birmingham Jail

This week (April 16) in 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, having been arrested for violating a trumped-up court order that prohibited him and his followers from conducting various protest activities, most of which you can read about in the First Amendment.

At first King was allowed no outside contact, but by the 16th he saw visitors and read publications such as the New York Times and local Birmingham papers — all of which criticized him for his actions.

But what really bothered King was the criticism by the local white clergy, which he read in the local papers.  Calling King’s demonstrations “untimely,” these church leaders also said that King’s actions, by inciting hatred and violence, were not faithful to religious tradition. (Jesus, who incited hatred and violence at the cost of his life, would have been puzzled).

King decided to reply, but lacking paper he began to scribble furiously along the margins of the few newspapers he had.  He kept at it for days, writing until he ran out of space on one newspaper and then drawing arrows and diagrams indicating the continuance of his letter on another. Finally he was able to smuggle this smorgasbord of scribblings to an aide, who typed them out on real paper. This 20-page missive became the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

It is an amazing document, worth reading in its entirety, but I will simply re-print an excerpt that goes to the heart of King’s anger — his reply to the familiar refrain that blacks should “wait” until conditions were more favorable.

“ … Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait’ … [but] 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 [amusement park] is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’ … I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

He signed it, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.”