Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

15 Jan
By National Archives and Records Administration (Army images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By National Archives and Records Administration (Army images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In advance of Martin Luther King day on January 19, we’d like to acknowledge the man on his birthday: January 15. Martin Luther King would have been 86 today and his words and actions continue to resonate today. King’s, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, was addressed not to the virulent, anti-black politicians but to a group he considered would be more sympathetic to his cause. The letter begins, “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” and is an impassioned call for white, moderate  religious leaders to support the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and to re-evaluate their tepid support of the movement.

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.

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

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. 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 Counciler 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.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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