Monday, January 18, 2010

Letter from Birmingham Jail

When thinking of Martin Luther King Jr., many a minds eye will jump to the powerful "I Have a Dream" speech delivered before the multitude on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or perhaps to the moving "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon given in Memphis, Tennesse. It is in these indelible images and his stirring orations that King, the civil rights leader, is lauded and remember.

But Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a man, a husband, a father... who lived, day to day, in the word of Jim Crow segregation, of blatant discrimation, and of violent intolerance. It was this world that he protested in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963 as part of a planned non-violent protest conducted by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference against racial segregation by Birmingham's city government and downtown retailers. King was arrested and jailed in the course of the protests which produced many of the iconic and heart wrenching images of the civil rights movement.

It is then while in jail, King wrote the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on April 16, 1963. The civil rights movement was fracturing. Some with the movement agitated for ever more aggressive street protests while others pressed for the battle against racial segregation to be fought solely within the courts. Indeed, King's letter was a response to a statement released by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, titled "A Call For Unity". King was increasingly leaning towards the more radicalized segements of the movement believing that without nonviolent forceful direct actions such as his, true civil rights could never be achieved.

It is these calm yet resolute words of King the man that have touched me so deeply. Read... He explains why waiting (for the courts) is impossible.

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen 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; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; 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, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. 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. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience."