Rev. King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'
In Alabama, King writes about his defiant, peaceful protests
Fifty years ago bigotry ran rampant in Birmingham, as it did throughout the Deep South.
The brutality directed at non-violent protestors in that Alabama city the summer of 1963 was so offensive a national outcry resulted in change and ultimately the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
Americans were shocked as they watched their TVs and witnessed the pain suffered by African Americans on the streets of Birmingham: the vicious attack dogs, the high-pressure fire hoses, the beatings and the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of a church that killed four young black girls, injured 20 other worshipers and left many in Birmingham and beyond brokenhearted.
It was here, several months before the March on Washington, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” encouraging participants of the Civil Rights Movement to defiantly, but peacefully, protest the South's unjust laws.
There were 250,000 protestors who participated in the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington and sat around the Lincoln Memorial Reflective Poll listening to King’s stirring and eloquent “I Have a Dream” speech. Many more have watched TV replays or read and analyzed his momentous speech.
How many have read King’s letter, which spelled out his protest philosophy? Or even are aware of it?
In 1963, Birmingham was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. King believed Birmingham was the worst racially divided city in U.S. He and other Civil Rights leaders organized two weeks of daily demonstrations in Birmingham protesting the racist treatment of African Americans, much of which he discussed in his letter.
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights…,” he wrote. “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.’ ”
King argued that he and other African Americans couldn’t sit idly by after witnessing “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…”
In April 1963, the first of the series of protest marches was announced to take place in Birmingham. On the eve of the event, a Birmingham judge issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." The Civil Right leaders disobeyed what they felt was an illegal ruling and went ahead with their non-violent march.
On April 12, 1963, King and others wore work clothes in solidarity with the average man and marched down Birmingham’s streets only to be stopped by police. Authorities roughed up King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other protestors and arrested them.
While in the Birmingham Jail, King wrote the beginnings of his non-violent manifesto known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or “Letter from City Jail.” King’s letter urged Americans to nonviolently resist racism because people have “a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.”
The letter, which is dated April 16, 1963, was actually completed over a longer period than a day. King started writing his manifesto on the margins of a newspaper in response to an appeal made by several Birmingham clergymen, who asked the Civil Rights leaders to move their protests from the streets into the courts.
King’s 6,900-word letter begins with a list of intolerances he and African Americans experienced 50 years ago. Segregation forced him to use a restroom marked “Colored” and he repeatedly slept in his car because hotels barred him.
“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... forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ — then you will… understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
King then answered the clergymen’s concern about the protestors' willingness to break some laws and obey others. He said there are just and unjust laws. He supported the former, but challenged the latter.
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all… Any law that uplifts human personality is just,’ ” King continued. “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes 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.”
The Civil Rights leader argued that Alabama’s segregation laws enacted by its legislators are unjust because the officials were not democratically elected. “Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?” King maintained.
“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ “
“If you were black in Birmingham in 1963, there was no escaping the violence and no place to hide.
"What I remember most from this time is the sound of bombs going off in neighborhoods, including our own. The white ‘night riders’ and the KKK… terrified any black family they could.”
– Birmingham native and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her memoir Extraordinary, Ordinary People.
Returning to the theme of urgency King wrote, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro…
“The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.”
As he concluded, King chided the clerics. “I wish you had commended the… demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.
"One day the South will recognize its real heroes," King predicted. "They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses…"
King then wrote about individuals “courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
A city not afraid to look back
Birmingham has decided to face its ugly past and this year is observing the 50th anniversary of that pivotal year, which was a catalyst for change in the U. S.
In the decades following 1963 a tremendous social transformation occurred. In the past 50 years, Birmingham has elected four black mayors, appointed three black police chiefs and installed seven black school superintendents.
The turmoil of half a century ago is on display in Birmingham as it focuses on the lessons learned from its past. Various institutions are telling the stories of 1963 through art exhibits, theater productions, musical performances and more.
Visitors may want to walk along the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which passes a variety of major Civil Rights era sites in the city. The path is punctuated with large interpretive signs many featuring historical photographs taken at the sites.
The trail starts in Kelly Ingram Park, which has many historic sculptures. It’s also near the 16th Street Baptist Church, which served as a staging ground for Civil Rights demonstrations in the 60s and was bombed in 1963 killing four girls in Sunday School.
President John Kennedy was among a vast number of Americans who were outraged by the brutality directed at African Americans in Birmingham and he sent Congress a sweeping piece of legislation that outlawed various kinds of discrimination in the U. S. Following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson rallied the Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
From 1955 until his assassination in 1968, when King led the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans achieved more racial equality than had been produced in the U.S. during the previous 350 years. These accomplishments are now taught in America’s classrooms to children of all races.
While King’s non-violent protests were ultimately successful in legally ending segregation in the South and major social improvements were made in Birmingham and other municipalities, the racial issues that divided the nation and sparked a Civil War 150 years ago still plague this country. Look no further than the inner cities today and the recent Trevon Martin shooting in Florida.
Americans must consider, as King argued in a 1965 speech, we are in this together and we all need to pull together to continue to make improvements:
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
– Dr. King • Oberlin College Commencement Address • June 1965
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© 2013 Thomas Dowling