Tag Archives: Letter from Birmingham Jail

“Freedom Is Never Voluntarily Given By The Oppressor” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the 4th of July

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

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When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he penned his response to a letter from some clergymen who objected to his demands.  He had led a peaceful march for freedom, but some objected, including some local church leaders.  Those clergymen wrote, in part:

We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.

Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to their call to be “patient.”  It is, in my opinion, must reading for any American who cares about our long quest for freedom for all people.  Here are some key excerpts from Dr. King’s response:

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present 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 since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms…
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.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.

If we should have learned anything about the centuries long quest for freedom, it should be this:  people (peoples) who don’t have freedom are seldom given it freely.  They have to take it.  Our very Declaration of Independence reminds us of this:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Whatever else we celebrate today, we celebrate this:  that people longing to be free have risen up, time and again, and asked for what is their “constitutional and God given rights.”  And any attempt to withhold such rights, such freedom, such freedoms, from any people (peoples) is downright un-American.

Enjoy your freedom.  Remember the long struggles that got us here.  And ask, who is deprived of this freedom today?  And, what can we do to speed up the process for them?  For, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Happy 4th of July.

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An interesting note:  this is a rare photograph of Dr. King dressed not in a suit and tie.  Taylor Branch chronicled Dr. King’s decision to go to jail, and described the shocked look on the faces of his friends as he stepped out of his bedroom in “dungarees and a work shirt.”  Ir’s been years since I read this, but I’m pretty sure it was in Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch.  As his friends debated the wisdom of Dr. King himself participating in the demonstration and thus being arrested, Dr. King stepped out in attire that signaled “I’m ready to go to jail.”  The adds to the poignancy of this line from his “I Have A Dream “ speech, delivered some four months after this arrest:

“With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – Words to Remember for this and every July 4

(Just a short list – we could add so many, many more)

“Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”
Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

• from the statement by eight Alabama clergymen that prompted Dr. King’s response:
We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders.  We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized.  But we are not convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely).

• From Dr. King’s response:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill 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; 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 is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward 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 county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are 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 “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963 – from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in response to the celergymen who had written an open letter of criticism (the Letter from Birmingham Jail)

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

What binds their stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were.  They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
They left. 
In the end, it could be said that the common denominator for leaving was the desire to be free, like the Declaration of Independence said, free to try out for most any job they pleased, play checkers with whomever they chose, sit where they wished on the streetcar, watch their children walk across a stage for the degree most of them didn’t have the chance to get.  They left to pursue some version of happiness, whether they achieved it or not.  It was a seemingly simple thing that the majority of Americans could take for granted but that the migrants and their forebears never had a right to in the world they had fled. 
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

“We Must Rise To The Majestic Heights Of Meeting Physical Force With Soul Force” – Dr. Martin Luther King Beckons Us Toward Non-Violence

(note;  I write on this blog about business topics, business books – and a few other subjects.  I also teach Speech.  This article refers to a section of what some call the greatest speech delivered in the United States in the 20th Century).

Today is Martin Luther King Day.  I have read his words, watched him on video, read biographies.  He was a remarkable man – a remarkable leader.

In this year, on this day, maybe it would be good to remember his clarion call for non-violence.

He had reason to demand change.  He was the Pastor of the church where Rosa Parks was a member.  Her “crime” was technically a crime, but a crime based on an unjust law.  Dr. King would later write:

I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One 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. (Letter from a Birmingham Jail – read the full text of the letter here).

And he knew that to gain freedom, to gain equality and justice, he had to “demand it.”

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. (Again, from the Letter from Birmingham Jail).

But, how to demand it?  This is where Dr. King’s greatness is seen.  He believed in demanding it/taking it without violence.  His friends had been beaten.  Some had been killed.  (many, over the decades).  Freedom Riders had had their heads bashed in.  (Here’s one example:  just read the Wikipedia article about Congressman John Lewis, regarding his early activist years.  For a gripping photograph of John Lewis, with bandages on the back of his head after being beaten by the KKK, in 1961, go to this Slate.com Magnum Photos slide show — look at picture #6.  The photo is from a press conference, and the future Congressman Lewis is seated next to Dr. King).

But Dr. King was certain that to respond to violence with violence was not the answer.  Here are words from his greatest speech, I Have a Dream, delivered at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963 (read the full speech here):

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Today, in relative comfort, four decades removed from the turmoil of that era, we forget that the approach of non-violence was not guaranteed to “win” the day.  There were other voices, recommending other paths — like Malcolm X, in a speech delivered some eight months after Dr. King’s, on April 3, 1964:  The Ballot or the Bullet (read the full speech here):

The question tonight, as I understand it, is “The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go From Here?” or What Next?” In my little humble way of understanding it, it points toward either the ballot or the bullet.

If we don’t do something real soon, I think you’ll have to agree that we’re going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It’s one or the other in 1964. It isn’t that time is running out – time has run out!

There’s new strategy coming in. It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death. The only difference about this kind of death — it’ll be reciprocal.

The black nationalists aren’t going to wait. Lyndon B. Johnson is the head of the Democratic Party. If he’s for civil rights, let him go into the Senate next week and declare himself. Let him go in there right now and declare himself. Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party. Let him go in there right now and take a moral stand — right now, not later. Tell him, don’t wait until election time. If he waits too long, brothers and sisters, he will be responsible for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of. In 1964, it’s the ballot or the bullet.

The contrast is so stark.  And the judgement of history is correct.  Dr. King’s speech was the greatest delivered in the era – not the one by Malcom X.  Why?  Because, ultimately, the path of non-violence is the better path.

This is the message of Dr. King.  But his was not a soft message.  He had studied Gandhi.  He believed that the path of non-violence was the path that had the greatest possibility of success.  Dr. King believed that the path of violence was both wrong, but also a losing path.

On Martin Luther King Day, let’s remember the turmoil of his era, the path he beckoned us toward, and the truth that the struggle for justice – justice for all – is ongoing, for us and our children and our grandchildren, and generations to come.  And let’s remember his message:  that freedom must be demanded, but never with acts of violence.

the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”

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Words from Dr. King:

Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality …”

Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

I carefully go over the great I Have a Dream Speech with my students.  And I have them read The Letter from Birmingham Jail for extra credit.  But if you have never read them, you might want to read his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech and lecture.