In January of 1963 white supremacist George Wallace took the oath as governor of Alabama. He concluded his inaugural address by pledging, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth....I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” It was a call for a nation of inequality. It was a call for hatred and moral bankruptcy for generation after generation. It was a denial of any hope for a better world, ever. And it was all that white America in 1963 had to offer the world. But....
...I actually begin this story on Monday, 2 April, 1963, when the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. (above) from Atlanta, Georgia, arrived in Birmingham, Alabama - “...the most segregated city in America...” - at the invitation of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Over the previous 80 years there had been 30 documented lychings of black men and boys in the surrounding county. None of these murders was ever solved. There is no indication that anybody ever tried to solve any of them. The city had no black police officers, the county no black sheriff's deputies, and it had suffered so many dynamitings of black homes and business – 21 over the previous decade - none of them solved - that it had earned the nickname of “Bombingham, Alabama”.
On Tuesday, 3 April, Rev. Shuttlesworth's Bethal Baptist Church filed a request for a parade permit to protest segregation of public services. The self avowed white supremacists City Commissioner Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor (above), immediately denied the permit. On Wednesday, 10 April a state court issued a preliminary injunction against 139 named individuals, including King and Shuttlesworth, baring them from “...participating in or encouraging....boycotting, trespassing, parading, picketing, sit-ins, kneel-ins, wade-ins, and inciting or encouraging such acts." The next day Dr. King announced,, “We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is... (a) misuse of the legal process”
Then on 12 April, 1963, Dr. King was arrested while attempting to lead a march on city hall. On that same Good Friday both Birmingham papers, the Morning Post Herald and the Evening News, published an open letter signed by 12 white clergymen, repeatedly urging “local” negro leadership to reject “outsiders” Although they never mentioned Dr. King by name, they strongly urged “...our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations.”
Dr. King was being held in solitary confinement. It would be three days before he read the so-called “Call for Unity”. But when he did his anger and frustration boiled over. He began to immediately scribble a response on the margins of the newspaper. When finally given pens and paper, his counterargument, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, would be one of the most impassioned and yet pragmatic defenses of freedom in 20th century America.
“WHILE confined here in the Birmingham city jail,” he began, “I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely." Then he added, “...since I feel that you are men of genuine good will...I would like to answer your statement...” He went on to justify his presence by reminding his white colleges he was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with 85 affiliates across the south, including one in Birmingham which had invited him to come.
“Beyond this”, he continued, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” As a Christian, he said, he could not “...sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Then he added, unknowingly speaking to future generations, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
King noted the disapproving clergy called the protests unfortunate. “I would say...it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.” He pointed out Birmingham's “...ugly record of police brutality...”
He reminded the white clergymen, “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham”, (population of 340,000) “than in any other city in this nation.”
King also reminded the clergymen that promises had been made the previous September by local business to remove “humiliating racial signs from the stores.” But, “As the weeks and months unfolded, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. The signs remained.... So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.”
He assured the doubtful clergymen the black community of Birmingham had asked themselves “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" Only when they could affirm that position of non-violent confrontation, did the Birmingham campaign begin.
Even then, they postponed their non-violent protests to avoid municipal elections. “This reveals,” wrote Dr. King, “we did not move irresponsibly...”. However, “After this we felt that direct action could be delayed no longer.”
He then explained to his critics, “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action...(to) dramatize the issue (so) that it can no longer be ignored.” He then added, “Too long has our beloved South land been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” And he pointed out that “...privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light...but...groups are more immoral than individuals.”
King then made it personal. “For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." Blacks had 350 years of waiting to be treated as equals, he wrote, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will...
...when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity...when...you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park...
...when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy"...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait”.
He reminded the clergymen that St. Augustine had written, “An unjust law is no law at all”. And he defined an unjust law as one which, “....a majority compels a minority to follow”. Thus, “ All segregation statutes are unjust because...(they give) the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” Segregation always, wrote King, "...ends up relegating some persons to the status of things.”
He reminded the sneering clergy of what they themselves had admitted in their “Call for Unity.” “Throughout the state of Alabama,” wrote Dr. King, “all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote, despite the fact that the Negroes constitute a majority of the population.”
To drive the point home, he added, “An unjust law is...inflicted upon a minority which...had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote.” In defending his methods, King reminded the clergymen civil disobedience was “...practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions...before submitting to certain unjust laws....” Using more recent history, he reminded his fellow Americans, '... everything Hitler did in Germany was "legal...".
Then he added, “ I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is...the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice... who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek...”, but who constantly advises blacks to “...wait until a more convenient season.”
“...must be condemned because they precipitate violence.” King asked, “...can this assertion be logically made?” In answering that question he stated the obvious. “Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”
He then chastised the clergy, saying, “We will have to repent...not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” And he reminded the whites citizens of Birmingham of an historical fact. “The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations...If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence.”
King admitted because civil disobedience invited confrontation, it might be considered an extreme position. But he asked, “Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? -- "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but...Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
And finally he felt compelled to call out the hypocrisy of the clergies' support for the racist Birmingham police, saying, “... if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls...
...if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys, if you would observe them, as they did on two occasions, refusing to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together...(then)... I'm sorry that I can't join you in your praise for the police department.”. He told these leaders of the white churches of Birmingham, that he had always preached that the greater sin was “....to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
And he closed by commending the demonstrators for “...their willingness to suffer, and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation.” And he predicted, “ One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
And he signed the letter, as he signed all his letters, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.”
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