About That “Letter From a Birmingham Jail…”


“It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather ‘nonviolently’ in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation.”

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

After half a century, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words to his “fellow clergymen” in the South still ring true. From behind bars in that Birmingham city jail, MLK keeps writing to us, and his words resonate loudly and clearly with the American people of the 21st century. His words yet give us cause to scrutinize and rectify what remains so terribly and obviously loathsome about America’s centuries-long war on its Black community: Not all lives matter equally. Ultimately, we cannot afford to stop listening to King. Although many believe rightfully that “all lives matter,” the lived reality of this sentiment does not remedy the fact that injustice and oppression are very much afoot. So, we must listen, and we must continue to respond to King’s letter because Black Lives Matter.

King and others took to Birmingham because injustice was there. For related but different reasons, Americans take to the streets today. We pour out across all different neighborhoods, towns, cities, and states, and we do so because injustice is everywhere. Despite cultural and regional differences, America’s justice seekers and concerned denizens occupy bridges, shut down freeways, and march down miles of metropolitan avenue. The anger and the outrage that drive us are righteous, and we communicate and coordinate online and through social networks because popular media refuses to abet us. There is unity amidst the variegation of dissent because oppression is diverse. Thus, it requires manifold responses. Furthermore, Americans everywhere resort to organically democratic methods; the people of this nation are communicating what we believe mostly peacefully. In doing so, we reaffirm our belief in the wisdom that MLK so keenly penned just five short decades ago: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

We no longer accept sitting idly by when, as King declared of himself years ago, folks today grow more and more “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” Who can forget the numerous other global citizens continents and oceans away who coalesced and raised signs to declare their solidarity with Ferguson protestors, and those in New York City, Oakland and elsewhere? MLK was right! Americans are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” and that network has become irreversibly global. To forget this is to forget a power that no government can suppress: solidarity. Moreover, the communication and osmotic networking and reporting amongst Americans only strengthens this trend; and in 2015, we can no longer stomach that anyone living within the United States be treated, as MLK said, like an “outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Though many comfortable bystanders today clearly disapprove of the demonstrations taking place across the nation, it is nevertheless important to recall that many bigots also deplored the demonstrations that took place in Birmingham. Perhaps worse is the indifference of those today, who, like yesterday’s apathetic and privileged citizens, consign themselves to inaction because the issue “doesn’t concern them.” But, like King, we regret to inform critics that their current disdain for protests and civil disobedience absolutely “fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations” in the first place. Indeed, their preferred social analysis does not get at the root of the problem; so, they should expect no apology for the inconvenience of dissent and protest. They should expect not apology any of the democratic expression of late.

Under what American politico-cultural umbrella does the flood of Black Lives Matter and anti-police violence protests fall? From his jail cell, MLK redacted that what was “even more unfortunate” than the demonstrations in Birmingham was the fact that “the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” We cannot ignore that there persists the exclusion of, and a paucity of access for, the Black community in America. More unfortunate than protesting America’s state-sponsored terrorism of the Black community in the 21st century yet remains this country’s unending disenfranchisement of its Black community. Oppression, exclusion, and terrorism all continue.

The media, with whatever lip service it gives demonstrations, protests, and recent victims, does only the bare minimum to cover the unrest, and it does so in the hopes of escaping complicity in a conspiracy to espouse an overt blackout. Despite the absence of necessary publicity, protest grows. Far, far from a simple curiosity or cultural anomaly, peaceful protestors are hopefully determined to fulfill that selfsame necessity today which King reasoned fifty years ago:

“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies 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.”

Marching for sorority, occupying for fraternity, and organizing in solidarity with the Black community was an intense motivation of some Civil Rights activists decades ago. It remains so today. Furthermore, the “need for nonviolent gadflies” that MLK invoked has been a pillar in the edifice of Western Civilization’s philosophy of justice for millennia; it is essential to a thriving, inclusive, and critical democracy in America. And for all lives to matter, it must continue without pause!

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King delineated the “four basic steps” to a nonviolent campaign: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” Activists undertook these steps with regards to Birmingham and soundly concluded that there could be “no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice” engulfed that city. In 2015, America’s deep racial injustice yet engulfs it. As MLK said of Birmingham five decades ago, America’s “ugly record of brutality is widely known,” and with every public lynching of Black souls today, the record grows distortedly ugly and ever more notoriously intolerable. It is more than just “important” to recognize that injustices yet exist, and that certain parties are averse to dialogue; it is imperative! While “purification” remains a personal matter in this campaign against racially driven systematic injustice, many exhibit willingness for sustained action.

None can seriously doubt that the Black community still experiences “grossly unjust treatment in the courts” in 21st century America. Philip Stinson, of Bowling Green State University, found that from 2005 to 2011, a mere 41 police officers were charged with murder/manslaughter for on-duty shootings. Police kill virtually a person a day, and they are seldom indicted for on-duty homicide. On 3 December 2014, a New York grand jury failed to indict a white police officer for choking and killing a Black man, Eric Garner. This failed indictment followed another grand jury decision in which a white officer was not indicted for killing Michael Brown, a Black man in Ferguson, Missouri. These decisions still shocked and angered millions of Americans to protest and organize, and with good cause: Data shows that Black people are roughly four times likelier to die while being arrested, or in custody, than are whites.

Not only police-related murders and shootings, but also the racially charged bombing of the Black community carries on today. Such terrorism echoes the bombings of Black churches and institutions throughout America’s history. The Colorado Springs chapter of the NAACP in Colorado was recently victimized by bomb violence, though it received unworthy media coverage by major 24-hour cable networks. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News did not even bother to respond to some inquiries apropos their “coverage” of the bombing. King said of Birmingham, “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case.” Today, the many barbarisms waged against the Black community have their roots in the same oppression that King labeled the “hard, brutal facts of the case” in Birmingham. In 2015, they remain the facts of the case in America’s endless lynching of its Black sons and daughters.

The effects of protesting during political elections, and the need to have protest coincide with economic stonewalling, not only help secure democratically demanded change, but they also uncover the media’s unwillingness to give attention to or report the events and issues that the public actually holds dear and indispensable for the future of its experiment with democracy. MLK addressed the economic and political importance of direct action employed with timely strategy and economic acumen in mind. With regards to the mayoral election in Birmingham, King wrote, “…we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues.” Today, protestors and marchers are still used as political leverage in order to immure the reasons as to why they take to the streets in the first place. In addition to marches and demonstrations, we have yet to actualize the politico-economic power we wield: Consumer spending predicates more than 70 percent of America’s economy.

To avoid scapegoating and confusion, apologizing why Americans today converge on public space in indignation against America’s ongoing war on its Black community becomes imperative. This chapter in America’s history of public outrage especially holds connections to activism and direct action in Birmingham so many years ago, though the venues and impetuses have changed. Speaking for himself other activists at the time, King wrote from his jail cell that nonviolent direct action was necessary “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.” We must continue to foster a tension in order to force the confrontation of the issues that outrage our entire American community.

Protesters today must not let up pressure, but we must create tension in our national community to deal with the issues. If not, the public risks embedded power—which clearly orchestrates de jure political power in America—overthrowing, or pretending to delegitimize, the de facto power of the public. Like the demonstrations in Birmingham, today’s protest must also seek “to dramatize the issue” so that “it can no longer be ignored,” as King said. And we must not let the powers that endeavor to obscure protest to shanghai and obscure it.

President Obama has said that distrust between minority groups and police are “deeply rooted in our history,” but that things are far better for African Americans than they used to be. Without glossing over or detracting from the epic Civil Rights struggle of King’s time, and with all due respect, we should still ask if All Lives Matter, and if Black Lives Matter just as much as others. Is today’s status quo “good enough” for Black Americans because its “better than it used to be,” or is it as it ought to be, as America’s Black community deserves it to be?

Understandably, as Obama has said, we “can’t equate what is happening now to what happened 50 years ago.” But we cannot forget that these atrocities and that this terrorism today that drives us all from homes and into the public sphere has a past. From that past MLK still addresses us and counsels us. And we protest now, in 2015, because the trajectory of oppression and moral and legal wrongs done against the Black community have no place in our culture or state any longer. There must be pressure, as King instructed, and we must remember his words that “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” American society’s privileged capacity to oppress and kill the Black community’s sons and daughters without the pushback, resistance, and opposition of every American that values freedom can no longer be the American reality in 2015. There is no more room for moderation. Freedom must be demanded and wrested. We must all march and protest, and we must not stop.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.  

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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