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50 years later: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ still resonates

SHARE 50 years later: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ still resonates

Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat alone in a 54-square-foot jail cell, depressed by his surroundings and troubled about what lay ahead for the civil rights movement he was leading.

He had been arrested two days earlier on Good Friday for violating a court order that required a parade permit for a large group to walk along a city sidewalk. Good Friday is a traditional marching day for many Christians who symbolically honor Jesus' walk to Calvary where he would be crucified. But in the segregated South of the early 1960s, a march through the streets of Birmingham, Ala., on this religious holiday landed about 50 civil rights demonstrators in jail.

In solitude and with little more than natural daylight, King would eventually begin writing an epistle that would underscore the religious underpinnings of the movement and become what scholars and historians say is one of the great documents of American history.

His Letter From Birmingham Jail would not only condemn the eight white fellow clergymen to whom he wrote, who had publicly criticized his demonstration as "unwise and untimely," but justify to a larger audience of religious and secular, black and white, the purpose and tactics of taking immediate action in nonviolent protest.

"Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation," King wrote. "We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."

While scholars have debunked some of the mythology surrounding the 20-page letter, its influence has reached beyond the civil rights movement to become a powerful religious and political argument for social justice and is required reading in many history, philosophy, religion, political science, writing and rhetoric courses in colleges across the country.

"One reason we keep reading the Letter From Birmingham Jail is because it’s one of our clearest articulations of the promise of this country and where this country has failed," said Wallace Best, a professor of African-American religious history at Princeton University. "But (King) is not down in the mouth about it. ... When I read it I am proud that I’m American; I’m proud of my Christian tradition and hopeful about the nation itself."

The social order

Rev. France Davis, longtime pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, reads his copy of the letter three or four times a year, gleaning new ideas from the document of more than 7,000 words. In his latest reading, Davis was impressed by King's argument that an oppressed race can't wait for justice.

"It jumped out at me. It reminded me of what people are saying about the economy, to just wait and it will turn around. Or, of Congress getting nothing done," Davis said.

In his letter, King responds to his critics' calls for patience by saying, "For years now I have heard the word 'wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never.'"

Davis grew up in rural Georgia, the same as King. While Davis' father was among those King lamented had come to accept the segregated customs of the South, Davis himself was different. At a local gasoline station, the 16-year-old Davis told a white patron that he wasn't "his boy." The confrontation generated threats from the local Ku Klux Klan and prompted Davis' father to send his feisty son to live with relatives in Washington, D.C.

Davis eventually returned home, where he graduated from a segregated high school. He left again to study at the prestigious Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama, where he heard the opposing approaches to winning civil rights from both Malcolm X and King. He participated in the march on Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and walked from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., demanding equal voting rights.

But it wasn't until he was attending a rhetoric class at the University of California at Berkeley in 1970 that Davis read King's epistle from jail. "I had heard his speeches and knew what he stood for, but I didn't read the Letter From Birmingham Jail until after Dr. King had died," Davis recalled.

Davis said his teachers at Tuskegee were afraid of King and what they believed was his overly aggressive strategy to stamping out segregation. They, like many white moderates throughout the country, wanted a more gradual approach to changing the social order of the South.

It was precisely that gradual approach that King attacked in his letter addressed to seven white Christian ministers and a Jewish rabbi. The clergymen had published an open letter in a local Birmingham newspaper, criticizing the Good Friday march's timing in the wake of a mayoral election that they hoped could bring about the change King desired. They called King an outsider whose extreme tactics would incite hatred and violence.

"We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense," the eight clergymen concluded.

A call for change

In his cell, furnished with a metal cot with no mattress nor overhead light, King began writing his response in the margins of a newspaper clipping of the clergy's open letter. He would later secure a writing pad and, during his confinement, send to his staff, via his visitors, paragraphs and pages that would later be crafted into a prison epistle.

At the beginning and conclusion, he tells his "fellow clergymen" that he normally doesn't respond to his critics or write at such length, but with little else to do in jail he would attempt to answer "sincere criticisms" coming from "men of genuine goodwill."

The letter is loaded with religious symbolism and biblical references that would resonate with ecclesiastical leaders. His writing from jail assumes the role of the ancient apostle Paul, to whom he compares himself by accepting an invitation to come to Birmingham just as Paul responded to "the Macedonian call for aid."

King then methodically picks apart his opponents' arguments calling for patience and compliance by using theology, reason and the emotion of personal experience.

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait,'" King writes, introducing a long litany of painful experiences his race faced under segregation.

"You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-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," he writes.

He blasts the logic of concluding that nonviolent demonstrations will incite violence. He asks if that's like "condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion."

King initially takes exception to his actions being called extreme but then embraces the description, as it puts the civil rights advocates in the same camp as Old and New Testament prophets, religious reformers and the nation's founders, who all denounced unjust laws.

He then castigates the modern church itself for losing the powerful influence it possessed in its first century. "Things are different now," King wrote. "So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are."

King concludes in a hopeful tone that he will meet the clergymen under better circumstances: "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."

A broader audience

But King and his fellow clergymen never did meet. In fact, none of them received a personally addressed copy of the letter, according to historian S. Jonathan Bass, whose book, “Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’" examines the origins and aftermath of the famous letter.

Bass, citing interviews with those involved in the production of the letter, wrote that the composing of the letter and the circumstances surrounding it were part of a carefully planned public relations campaign to reach a larger audience than just the religious leaders of Birmingham.

After King was released from jail, he and his staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference refined and edited the letter, which was dated April 16 but sent out as a press release in the first two weeks of May. Civil rights leaders, however, promoted a more intriguing story about a letter written from the despondent confines of jail.

"The idea that King had written this great, refined work of polished prose in a period of less than 72 hours, on or before April 16, 1963, was a key part of the letter's appeal for the press and public," Bass wrote.

But while civil rights leaders employed some public relations savvy to get the letter out into the hands of the media, King's skillful use of religious language and metaphor, logic and reason, and emotion has given the letter broad appeal over the succeeding years.

"He could have cited chapter and verse and called it a day, but he needed the letter to work on multiple levels and not exclusively from the Christian tradition," Best said. "So, not to undermine the religious force at its core, but what I find is so beautiful about the letter is that it is firing on a number of levels, and that may be why it has such resonance across the globe."

While the letter has found relevance in politics and other secular disciplines, Bass explained that its content confirms the civil rights movement was at its core a religious awakening that resulted in a political solution to racial discrimination.

He said King was the national leader, but the troops putting their lives in danger were the local black churchgoers inspired by their faith. "What’s going to be in their minds and hearts? 'I am going to stare down police dogs and take the full brunt of fire hoses because I am an enlightened secular liberal'?" Bass said. "They are going to say, 'This is God’s calling in my life, I am a follower of Jesus Christ and I am doing this because God is calling me to do this.'"

Best and Bass said the letter and the movement itself can't be looked at through a simple single lens but through a complex combination of multiple lenses to understand the full meaning and the truths the letter reveals.

A catalyst for change

With his sights on the ministry, when Davis first read the letter in college he detected something beyond King's expert use of rhetoric. "I had gone to seminary for a couple of years, and I think that gave me a different perspective of the letter" than many of his classmates, said the longtime pastor of Calvary Baptist.

"His references of love. The justifications he provided for breaking the law as a religious person. The positions he took about one person hurting, then everyone is hurting. I became a King follower at that point," said Davis, seated in a conference room where a painting of King and photos documenting the civil rights movement hang on the walls.

Davis said the letter has served him and his congregation well as a guide for how to practice and live out one's faith. "The letter gives us rules, ways and methods for the application of our teachings, like love your neighbor and look out for the underdog," Davis said. "So it is a how-to guide for much of what I believe, teach and practice."

Bass said King's influence goes beyond the black church. "He should be understood in context of American religious traditions and that he is to civil rights movement what Jonathan Edwards was to first great American awakening and Charles Finney to second great awakening."

And the letter in which King eloquently lays out how religion can be a catalyst for change can also be a primer on how America evolves, explained Best.

"Read it and you will get some very clear ideas of what this country has been about, what this country has suggested itself to be, where it has fallen short and some strategies of how to get to a place that we would all like to be," he said. "For anybody who wants to understand America, an entry to doing that would be the Letter From Birmingham Jail."