The following essay is adapted from my book, “Roadtripping at the End of the World” (Macska Moksha Press, 2019).
In the summer of 2018, while on a cross-country road trip, I stayed one night in a motel on the outskirts of Birmingham. Just being there brought to mind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which I had heard of but never read. I was too tired to look it up that evening, but later I found a copy online and sat down with it. I was glad I did; though the text is nearly sixty years old, it expresses many lessons that are relevant today, especially for activists.
This famous piece of writing is exactly what it sounds like: correspondence penned by King while imprisoned. He was arrested on April 12, 1963 during his participation in the Birmingham Campaign.
The Birmingham Campaign had been launched nine days earlier, on April 3, by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). That day, they released the “Birmingham Manifesto” which began with the words:
The patience of an oppressed people cannot endure forever. The Negro citizens of Birmingham for the last several years have hoped in vain for some evidence of good faith resolution of our just grievances. Birmingham is part of the United States and we are bona fide citizens. Yet the history of Birmingham reveals that very little of the democratic process touches the life of the Negro in Birmingham. We have been segregated racially, exploited economically, and dominated politically.
The Manifesto then lists the various tactics already undertaken, including petitioning the city, taking their case to the courts, and negotiating with local businesses, but all to no avail. “We hold in our hands now, broken faith and broken promises.” Therefore, the time for “direct action” had arrived. “We act today in full Concert with our Hebraic-Christian tradition, the law of morality and the Constitution of our nation,” the Manifesto declares, and issues an invitation:
We appeal to the citizenry of Birmingham, Negro and white, to join us in this witness for decency, morality, self-respect and human dignity. Your individual and corporate support can hasten the day of ‘liberty and justice for all.’
The direct action campaign included a boycott of downtown business, marches on City Hall, sit-ins at lunch counters and libraries, kneel-ins at churches, and attempts to register voters at county offices. The city responded by making hundreds of arrests, but the campaign continued. After a week, on April 10th, the city government of Birmingham obtained an injunction from a state court that allowed it to forbid the protests. Anyone who marched in the city after that point could be arrested.
King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been a partner in the Birmingham campaign at the explicit invitation of ACMHR, though King himself had not participated in person up to this point. The city’s action forced a decision of whether to continue or not. During planning for the actions, organizers had already agreed not to respect such an injunction since previous campaigns had faltered when they had done so. However, when the moment arrived, there was some hesitation to subject themselves to being jailed; the campaign had run out of money to bail out arrestees, and King was an effective fundraiser who could be useful outside. After consideration, though, King decided to go to Birmingham anyway: “I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from. But I have to make a faith act.”
So on April 12th—which happened to be Good Friday—King was arrested along with fifty others. By prearrangement, organizers refused to offer bail for his release and used his imprisonment to gain publicity for the cause. This worked: the story soon went national.
While King was in jail, a group of white clergy in Birmingham published a condemnation of the direct action campaign in the Birmingham News. King received a copy of the paper in his cell and began writing his response in the margins (later finishing it in a notebook provided by his legal team). The letter was completed on April 16th and was published widely.
Like much of what poured forth from King, the letter is eloquent in its language and expresses a clarity of vision that is rooted in both intellectual and moral traditions, while facing the challenges of the present squarely. Everyone who yearns for justice should read the letter in its entirety, as much of it remains relevant to contemporary struggles. What follows are the passages that stood out most for me.
On the need for direct action:
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 posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Surely King was aware that he was here echoing Frederick Douglass—well-known 19th Century abolitionist and escaped slave—who famously said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” King’s distinction between the contrasting likelihoods of individuals and groups to wake up and change their ways stands out and, insofar as it reflects his own experiences and observations in the civil rights movement since the mid 1950’s, deserves serious consideration. In our own time, when so much is virtual—including communication and notions of community—are groups even more “immoral”?
On the timing of current actions in Birmingham:
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.
Haven’t we seen this many times since then? The urban uprisings that followed King’s assassination were certainly examples of that cup running over. In our own time, an unwillingness to live in despair has sparked street actions against racist policing, especially the ongoing epidemic of cop-on-civilian violence.
On the subject of breaking the law:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. 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.”
King defines a just law as one that “squares with the moral law or the law of God” and an unjust one as “out of harmony” with the same. In discussing how laws supporting segregation are unjust he draws on both Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and Christian theologian Paul Tillich. His level of discourse on this point—and on others throughout the letter—displays his academic background, which included a doctorate. This is not writing you can just skim. Nor can it be reduced to a series of tweets.
Bringing it back to the specific case of his arrest:
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
Debates over whether to obtain permits for political marches continue to this day. Certain types of organizers still fetishize legality, and too often they are the same ones who profess non-violence in the names of Gandhi and King; I suggest it would be useful for them to revisit King’s views on the subject. Rather then being opposed to breaking the law on principle, he is in favor of breaking it as a principle:
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, 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…
Here is arguably the heart of the philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience: the appeal to conscience. Notice that King speaks here of the conscience “of the community,” not of the oppressor, the oppressor’s class or the oppressor’s power structure. Critics of non-violent theory—such as Craig Rosebraugh, in his book, The Logic of Political Violence—have rightly pointed out that one’s oppressor might lack a conscience to appeal to. King apparently understood this, advocating instead to go over the head of the government to the people.
King’s critics in the Birmingham clergy were white, and he takes direct aim at them and their class here. Here are the kinds of words and sentiments that are still regularly skipped over in favor of snippets from the “I have a dream” speech:
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.
Those are some hard-hitting words that have lost none of their relevancy—or punch—in our current day. If anything, the situation is worse now, with the Obama presidency having served as a rationalization for many white moderates to dismiss the relevancy of racism as the persistent problem it is. Today’s white moderates took the sight of black grandmothers crying with joy on the night of the 2008 election as proof that “the problem of race” had been solved. What more could they want? Surely this showed that we could all move on now, right?
Black Lives Matter put the lie to that narrative. They knew “shallow understanding” and “lukewarm acceptance” when they saw it. The fact that the most vocal Black organizing in a generation erupted when the White House was occupied by its first Black family was itself a clear, unequivocal message. As King wrote: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”
King understood that the “yearning for freedom” in the United States was connected with movements abroad:
Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.
This international perspective distinguishes King’s analysis from that of most activists in the contemporary US, who tend to be blind to foreign policy and limit their focus exclusively to domestic issues. Witness how the emphasis on wages, health care, debt, and even Climate Change ignores the issue of US imperialism. King would not take up that topic explicitly and publicly for another four years (in his “Three Evils” speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a year to the day before his assassination), but here we see that his perspective was already more expansive than the borders of the US.
People today might find it hard to believe that King was ever called an “extremist” (especially given the watered-down version of his beliefs that has become prevalent) but he was, and he addresses the term directly:
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? …Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
“Creative extremists”—there’s a label worth taking up again! Given the multiple crises of our time, which are themselves extreme, that’s what we should be aspiring to be.
King speaks about the limited outlook of those on top of the social hierarchy, and this too has not changed:
Few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.
King then devotes a long section to criticizing the churches that had so far refused to stand with him and with everyone else fighting for civil rights. Here are two pointed excerpts:
I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows. …In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.
In King’s mind, the church had a historical role as a rabble-rousing institution, not as a supporter of the status quo, and that by abandoning that role, it was putting its own existence at stake:
If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Enigmatically, he then adds:
…Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
“Ekklesia” is a Greek word—ἐκκλησία—that appears in the New Testament of the Christian Bible which is usually translated as, “church.” It’s a compound word made up of “ek-,” for “out” and “kalein” for “to call”; so, to “call out” or to “summon.” The early Christians borrowed the term from the ancient Greeks, for whom it designated a public assembly of citizens convened to deliberate political issues.
“The church within the church” is an intriguing phrase, and King did not coin it. The first “church” describes a spiritual community and the second an institution; that is, the people who live as believers as opposed to the structures that dictate dogma. King is implying that, if need be, he is willing to walk away from establishment Christianity in favor of the Christianity that exists among believers, unorganized. For some people in his audience, this might have been the most controversial statement he made in the entire letter.
King was devoutly Christian which gives his words a particular punch. Earlier in the letter, when he criticized the churches, he was clear: “I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.”
Personally, I am not myself a believer, and I am well aware of all the great evil perpetrated in the world in the name of Christianity. Gore Vidal was not far off the mark when he declared that “the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” Yet when I read King’s words, or hear one of his speeches, I cannot lump him in with the brutal Spanish conquistadors of the European invasion, the bloodthirsty Crusaders of the Middle Ages or the bigoted fundamentalists of our own time. And when it came to that last group anyway, King made it abundantly clear that neither could he. For whatever reason—his education, his upbringing, his inborn constitution—he was able to draw on Christianity to fuel his fight for justice. I imagine that if he had he been born into a different time and place cursed with oppression but without Christianity, that he surely would have drawn his inspiration elsewhere.
Putting the local struggle into a wider context, both in place and in time, King wrote:
I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.
King wrote these words over half a century ago, and at this point in time, having one’s destiny tied to America’s seems dangerous. The nation is on a headlong rush toward disaster, politically, economically and ecologically, and is threatening to take down a bunch of other lives with it. It strikes me that the prudent course would be to untie oneself from “America” at this point, if possible.
I didn’t know what to think about King’s phrase, “the goal of America is freedom,” so I turned to activist Forrest Palmer for his opinion. He replied:
That is a lie. I don’t know if he was saying that because [he] actually believed it or if it was something to ingratiate the white power structure that controlled his personal and professional life as well as those of his people. Whatever the reason for such a misguided statement, it was still misguided.
I think that people need to start analyzing things in an honest retrospective capacity and not one that is totally beholden to individuals we consider hero figures. It is not a dishonor to go back and critique people when we have more information at hand…. We can’t just relegate our present circumstances to the positions of the ones who preceded us since the times, they are a changing.
Finally, King had a few words about the police, and those who approved of their behavior:
You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
In the present day, police are often complimented by the media or by liberal organizers for their “restraint,” even in situations when they showed little to none. This is exactly what King was talking about. He also says that, when the police did act “nonviolently” it was for one purpose: “To preserve the evil system of segregation,” which is, of the status quo. He goes on: “I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
King signs off with a characteristically poetic flourish:
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Unfortunately, that tomorrow still seems distant.