Written while he was jailed for leading nonviolent demonstrations, King's open letter defined the Civil Rights movement.
Editor's Note: Bruce Watson is a Contributing Editor of American Heritage and has authored several critically-acclaimed books. He writes a history blog at The Attic.
BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA — APRIL 1963 — The cell has no mattress, no sheets. The prisoner sits on a bed of metal slats, scribbling in the margins of a newspaper. The letter is addressed to eight white clergymen, but it should be cc’ed: America.
“While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities 'unwise and untimely.’ Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work. . .”
The March on Washington is not yet a dream. The Civil Rights movement has sparked a vicious backlash. Blacks losing faith in non-violence are turning to Malcolm X. Whites are urging patience. The White House considers civil rights a nuisance. But, that spring, Martin Luther King comes to Birmingham.
“If you come to Birmingham,” the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth writes, “you will not only gain prestige, but really shake the country.”
Birmingham: 60 percent white, 40 percent black. No black cops, firefighters, sales clerks, bus drivers. . . Black unemployment doubles white. Just ten percent of blacks can vote. Bombs have destroyed homes and churches, earning the city the nickname Bombingham.
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” King writes in his cell. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Arriving in Birmingham, King helps revive a boycott. But “Bull” Connor, the city’s safety commissioner and most blatant bigot, gets a court injunction banning “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” King has obeyed injunctions elsewhere and seen protests wither. No more. The marches, the boycott continue.
But King soon considers leaving Birmingham to raise funds. What good would he do in jail? “I had never seen Martin so troubled,” a friend writes. King finally decides to stay, to march, to speak, and on April 12, Good Friday, he is arrested.
Back in Atlanta, Coretta has just given birth. And now her husband is behind bars in the South’s most savage city. All weekend, she hears no word. Then, on Monday, a call comes from the White House, informing Loretta that her husband will phone soon. He does, but knowing the phone is tapped, Martin is terse, quiet. That afternoon, a lawyer enters his cell and leaves some newspapers.
The press is bad. TIME denounces the “poorly timed protest.” The Washington Post calls the campaign “of doubtful utility.” But what sets King to writing is the Birmingham News.
“White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstration”
The eight men — ministers, priests, a rabbi — support integration, but they question King’s timing and “extremism.” Furious, he begins scribbling on the newsprint, connecting his thoughts with loops and arrows.
He explains non-violence: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
But why now? Why not wait?
“For years now, I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait' has almost always meant ‘never’. . . We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.‘"
Then King spins out a sentence that rips open the hypocrisy, tears at the heart, and bares the brittle truth of black life in America. You just have to read it.
The next morning, King’s lawyer returns, hoping to discuss their legal efforts. King can only talk about his letter.
“I’m writing this letter. I want you to try to get it out, if you can.”
“I figured he was entitled to it,” Clarence Jones remembered. “You know, a man in jail, but Lord have mercy, I thought he had lost his perspective.”
Writing on notepaper left by his lawyer, then when it runs out, on toilet paper, King continues. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” runs to 20 pages. King explains just and unjust laws and weighs in on time and history.
“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
From memory, he quotes T.S. Eliot, Lincoln, Jefferson, the Bible. He invokes Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, and the apostle Paul. “Extremism? Was not Jesus an extremist in love? -- ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice? -- ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’. . . So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love?”
On Wednesday, King finishes. He apologizes for going on so long, “but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”
After eight days behind bars, King is released. His letter, released to the press, draws no attention. But after he returns to Atlanta, Birmingham explodes. Police set attack dogs and fire hoses on marchers. On TV, the nation watches in horror. Come August, King steps before a quarter million people at the Lincoln Memorial.
In the wake of that moment, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” gradually seeps into America’s conscience. Excerpts appear in religious journals, in magazines, finally in King’s book Why We Can’t Wait. By the time he is gunned down, the letter has been anthologized, studied, enshrined.
Today, Birmingham boasts America’s best civil rights museum, along with gut-wrenching statues of shameful events. Nearby, the church where a bomb killed four little girls is a shrine to innocence. But, along with public displays, King’s letter speaks as powerfully as his dream.