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roeder_letter_from_birmingham_jail_eng_1000_10 - Letter...

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Unformatted text preview: Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, J r., 1963 Courtesy The King Center. Atlanta, Ga. "LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL" Who-eds:- April 16, 1963 {m Birmingham. Alabama 1 My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I cante across your recent statement calling pmsent activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But sirme I feel diatyouare men ofgemu‘ue goodwill andthatyotn criticisms are sincerely set forth,Iwarntotrytoansweryota'statememinwhatIhopewillhepatientandreasmahleterms. IthinkIshouldindicatewhyIamhemithminghamsinccyouhaveheeninflueueedhytheview whicharguesagainst “outsiderscomingin.” IhavefllehonorofservingasPresidentoftheSomhem Christianieadership Conferencc,anorganization opemtingitteverysonthemstatnwith headquarter-sin Atlanta, Georgia. We havcsomeeighly-fiveaffiiiatedorganizationsacrossme Send], and one of them 1s theAIahamaChristian Movement for I-Itnnan Rights. Frequemlywesharestaff, educationaland financial resources withourafflliates. Several months ago the affiliatehereinBirmingham askedusto beonealltoengageinanonviolemdhem-acfionprogramifsrwhnemdeemedneeesaary.Wereadibr consentedandwhenthehourcarnewelivedtmteomprondse.Sel,alougwid1sevcta1memherscfmy staffiamhcrehecanseIwasinvitedhere.IamherebecauseIhaveorganizmionaln'mhere. BtrtmorebasiealiyJaminBiImingham heeanaeinjusticeishereJnstastheprophetsofflie eighth century EJC. lefttheirviilages and carried their "thus saiththe Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, andjttstastheAposflePanlleflhisidflageofTarmrsandcarriedfllegospelofJesns Christ tn the far corners of the Green-Roman wot-id, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respondto the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all connnunitics and states. I cannot sit idly in Atlantaand not be concerned about whathappens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is athreatto ittstiee everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever afl‘ects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live widt the narrow, provincial "roadside agitator“ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its hounds. You deplore the demonstrations taking piece in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails soexprmsasimflmeonemnfmthemndiflonsmatbroughtabomthedemonsnafions. Iamsurethat none of you maid want to rest content with the ntperficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with efi'ectsanddoesnotgrappiewithtmderlyingearms. Itisunfornmatethatdemonsn'atinnsaretaking place inHinninghanLhutitiseven moreunfornntatefltattltccitysadntepowerstrucmrelefithelvegro httpflooursesalnanix.msu.eduf~hsflflotdncumenmtenerlmm sentence This material may be protected any 10 copyright law [Title 1'! ISLE. Cede! Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, in, 1963 Page 2 of it} community with no alternative. In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; selfpurification; and direct action. We have gone flnough all these steps in Birmingham. There can he no gain saying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widerr known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham that in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation. Then, last September, came the opportlmity to talk with leaders of Birmingham‘s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants - for example, to remove the stores' humiliating racial signs. {in the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratoriumonafldemoostrations. Astheweeksandmonmswenthy,werealizedthatwewered1e victims of a broken prontise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nontdolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliation?“ “are you able to endure the ordeal of gall?" We decided to schedule our direct- action program fit the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economicwithdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to hear on the merchants forthe needed change. Then it occurred to us that Birmingham's ntayoralty election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until afler election day. 1When We discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bill“ Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations could not he used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured posmonernent after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be delayed no longer. 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 pin-pose 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 construchve nonviolent tension which 1s necessary forgrowth. JustasSocrates feitthatitwasnecessarytocreateatemionmthemindsothat individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and halftruths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadfiies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. http:ticotu'sesamauix.msu.eduf~hst3flfiidocumeotsfletter.html flflgflflfld Imam aBinhinghamJfiLMartln' Luther King-'- '.Jr.,1963 ”gum The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue. Oneofthe basicpointsinyotnstatementisthattheactionthatlandmy associateshavetaltenin Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn‘t you give the new city adu‘tinish‘alion time to act?“'i'heonlyanswerthatlcangivetothisqueryisthatthenewfliirninghamadministtationmustbe prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will set. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Eoutwell is a much more gentle person that Mr. Connor, they are both scgregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the stems gun. I have hoped that Mr. Eoutwell will be reasonable enough to see the firtility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without prism from devotees of civil rights. My fiiendstustsaytoyouthattvehave notntadeasinglegainincivilrightswithotudeternflnedlegal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust poshire; but as Reinhold Niebuhrhas reminded us, groups tend to be more humeral that individuals. We blow through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppmmr, it must bedemandedbyflieopmessedfranklxlhaveyettoengageinadirectsacfion campaignthatwaswell timed“ inviewofthose whohavenot suffered unduly fromfliediseaseof'segregation. Foryears uowl have heard the word “wait!" It rings inthe ear ofevcry Negro with piercing familiarity. This ”Wait" has almost always silent "Never.“ We must come to see, with one of our distinguishedjurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice deified." We have waited for more that 3-H] years for our constitutional and Godgiven rights. The nations of Asia andAfiicaare moving withjetlilte speed toward gaining political independerme, butwc still creep at horse-and-buggy pacetoward gainingacupofcoffeeatalunchcounmr. Perhapsit iseasy forthcsewho have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.“ But when you have seen vicious mobs lyachyourmotheis andfathersatwill anddrownyoursistersaodbrothetsatwhim; whenyouhave seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even ltill 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; whenyou suddenly find your tongue twisted andyour speech stamrnering asyou seek to explain to we six-year—old daughter why she can‘t go to the public amusement park that lmsjust beenadvertisedontelefisiomandseetearswellingupinhereyeswhensheistoldthatFuntownis closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky,andseeherbeginmngmdistonhupasonalityhydevelopiuganuncmseious bitternesstoward 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-eotmuy drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable comers of you- automobile because no motel will acceptyou; whenyouare 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 "hall's.“; when your are harried by day and haunted by nigbtb}r the fact that you are aNegro, living constantlyattiptaoe stance,neverquitelmowingwhatto expeetnextandareplagueduidihuierl'eats and outer rescnunents; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of *nobodiness" then you will understandwhy wefiad itdif'ficulttowait. There comesatinte whenthecupofendurancenutsover, andmenarenolongerwillingtobcplungedintotheahyssof'deSpairJhopesirnyoucanunderstand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. Youexpressagieatdeal ofanxictyoverourwillingnesstobteaklaws. Thisis certainlyalegitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme ICourt's decision of 1954 outlawing hnp:#cotn'ses1man'ix.msu.eduf~hst3{lfifdocumeutsflctter.hunl anemone Letter from aflirniingham Jail, MartinLuther King, in, 1963 Pagedof lfl segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask: “How canyon advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?“ The answer liesinthefactthattltetearetwotypesoflawszjustandunjustIwould'bethefirstto advocate obeying just laws. lCine. has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all.“ Now, what is the diflerence between the two? How does one determine whether a law isjust or unjust? Ajastlawisarnan—made codedtatsquareswitlithetnorallaword1elawoffiodnnunjustlawisa code that is out ofHarntony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An tmjust lawisahuman lawthatisnotrootedineternallawsndnann'allaw.nny lawthatupliits human personality isjust. Any law that degrades human personality is tmjust. All segregation stamtes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Huber, substitutes an “I-it" relationship for an "l-tiiou“ relationship and ends up relegating pemons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinfill. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man s tragic separation, his awful esu'angement, his terrible sinfulness‘? Thus' is it thatI can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and] can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong. Let us consider a more concrete example ofjust and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itselfl'ihisisdifi'erence madelegal.Bythesametokemajutnlawisaoodethatamajoritycompclsa minority to inflow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Letme give anodterexplanation. A law is Lmjust ifitis inflicted onaminofityfltanasaresultofheing denied the rightto vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Mabmawmchfltupmmfime'ssegregafimhmwndemmmficaflyelmmd?flmughomflabmmfll sortsofdefiousrnethodsareusedto preventNegmesfi‘omh-ecomingregisteredvoters,andfl1ereare some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute amajority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted tmder such circumstances he considered democratically structured? Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in ifs application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge ofparadingwithotn aperntit. How, were is nothing wrong in having anordinance which requires apermitforaparade.Butsuehanordinance beeomesunjustwhenitisusedtomaintsinsegregationand to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege ofpeacefiil assemth and protest. Ihopeyouareahletoseethe distinctionlalntryingtopointoutlnnosensedoladvocateevadingor defyingthe law,aswouldtherabid segregationist. Thatvmuldleadto anarchy. One who breaksan unjust law mustdo soopenly, lovingly,andwithawillingness to aeceptlhepenalty.lsuhfltti1atan individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is tmjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. flfcourse, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced suhlimely in the reliisalofShadrach, Meshach, andAbednegotoobeythelawsofbiebuchadnezzar,cnthegtoundthata highermoral lawwasatstalre. Itwas practiced superblyby theearly Christians,whowerewillingtao face hungry lions and the excmciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic fi'Iedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil http:ficoursesa.maflix.msn.edni~hst3flfiidocmnentsfletter.hnnl Biliiflflflfi Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King. Jr., 1963 Page 5 of It] disobedience. in our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience. We should never forget that everyfliing Adolintler did in llCirermany was “legal“ and everything the Hungarian heedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.“ Itwas “illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’sGei-marry.*Evenso,lamsurethaLhadIlivedinGem1anyatthetime,lwouldhavcaidedand comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist cotmtry where certain principles dear to the Chrisn'an faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that coimuy's anti-religious laws. I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that overthepast fewyearslhavebeengmely disappointedwidithewhitemoderate. I haveahnostreacbed the regrettable conclusion that the Negro‘s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor 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 sock, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who patemalistically believes he can set the timetable for another mans fi'wdom; who lives by a mythical couceptoftime and who constantly advises the Negro the wait for a “more convenient season.“ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. Ihadhopedthatthewhitemoderatewuuldunderstandthatlawandorderexistforthepurposeof establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will reap-eat the dignity and 1rurnrth of human personality. Achmlly, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. Webfingitoutintheopemwhereitcanbeseanddealtwifli. Likeaboilthatcannever bectn‘edsolongasitiscovereduphutmustbeopenedwithallituglinesstothenaturalmedicincsofair and light injustice must be exposed withali the tension its exposure creates, to the light ofhimian conscience and the air of national opinion, before it can be clued In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn‘t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn‘t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving conuuimient to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which tliey made him drink hemlock? Isn‘t this like condemning Jesus because his tuiique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We mustcometoseedmtasthefederal courtshave connstenflyaffirmemitiswrongmurgeaumdividual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because he questmay precipitate violence. Soc...
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