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April 16th marks the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a passionate response by Dr. King to eight white clergymen who argued that racial segregation should be fought in the courts and not by protest in the streets. The letter is Dr. King’s answer to claims that he was an outside agitator when he was, in reality, a peaceful protester, saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” served as the catalyst for the publication of Why We Can’t Wait, which Dr. King began writing in the fall of 1963. The book attempted to explain the “Negro Revolution” by drawing on the history of black oppression in the United States and the growing frustration among African Americans of the neglect of civil rights issues by both political parties. Originally published in 1964 by Harper & Row, Why We Can’t Wait received glowing reviews and further reflects the importance of Dr. King’s letter and his commitment to nonviolent, peaceful protest. It was reissued in 2011 as part of The King Legacy series from Beacon Press.
In 1963, Birmingham was often called the most segregated city in America. After accepting an invitation to engage in a non-violent direct-action program sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s affiliate, Dr. King was forced to choose between helping to raise bail money for hundreds who were already incarcerated for peaceful protest in a massive direct action campaign attacking the city’s segregation system among Birmingham’s merchants, or go to jail himself. According to Dorothy Cotton, who wrote the introduction to the 2010 edition of the book, Dr. King “came face to face with himself as a leader.” He had encouraged others to accept suffering and to accept jail time, and now there was no other alternative.
After being jailed on April 12th under the pretense of parading without a permit, Dr. King writes his letter to express disappointment with the “white moderate” community that makes up the white churches, who he believes are more concerned with order than with justice. Dr. King urges for the use of nonviolent direct action, which creates and fosters a tension in a community which has constantly refused to negotiate and is finally forced to confront the issue of segregation. For him, this kind of constructive, nonviolent tension is necessary for growth.
Throughout the letter he outlined the four basic steps to nonviolent campaigns: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether or not injustices exist, 2) negotiation, 3) self-purification, and 4) direct action.
He underlines the definitions of the two kinds of laws: just and unjust. A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God, while an unjust law is one that is out of harmony with the moral code. For Dr. King, segregation is not only politically, socially, and economically unsound, but also morally wrong and sinful—the highest kind of unjust law and for him, “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” Underlining the pent up frustrations of the African American community, Dr. King reminds the eight clergymen that to sit around and wait for acceptance and desegregation is impossible. Because freedom must be demanded by the oppressed, Dr. King argues that the best way is to march, and that it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Dr. King was eventually released from jail on April 20th.
The letter began on the margins of scraps of newspaper while Dr. King was isolated in jail. He eventually finished it on a pad his attorneys were permitted to leave with him. Dr. King’s letter circulated and was published in a variety of formats: first as a pamphlet distributed by the American Friends Service Committee, and then as an article in the Christian Century, the New York Post, Ebony, and Christianity and Crisis. The first half of the letter was published in the Congressional Record after being introduced into testimony before Congress by Representative William Fitts Ryan (D-NY). In July of 1963, Dr. King published an excerpt from the letter in the Financial Post, retitled “Why the Negro Won’t Wait.” It appeared in its entirety in Why We Can’t Wait. On the 50th anniversary of its publication, Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reminds the world why we can’t wait, and why we must continue to struggle toward a nation of peace and social justice.