In honor of MLK's 26th Annual MLK Day, Gettysburg News released comments from several residents today.
In this post we also publish "Letter from A Birmingham City Jail," an open letter King wrote on April 16, 1963 during this year's campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, to draw attention to the integration efforts of African Americans in a severely divided city close .
The letter itself was in response to a letter from eight local white clergymen responding to civil rights demonstrations taking place in the area at the time.
In response to being labeled an "outsider," King writes, "Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
The letter became an important text for the American civil rights movement.
Somehow, the letter's justification for nonviolent protest seems just as relevant and moving today as it was 58 years ago.
Letter from a Birmingham jail
Martin Luther King Jr.
My dear fellow clerics:
While I was incarcerated here in Birmingham City Jail, I came across your most recent testimony in which I described my current activities as "unwise and out of date." I seldom take a break to answer criticism of my work and my ideas. If I tried to answer every criticism that permeates my desk, my secretaries would have little time during the day for anything other than such correspondence, and I would not have time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of real goodwill and that your criticism is being honestly expressed, I would like to try to answer your statement in the way I hope it is patient and reasonable.
I think I should state why I am here in Birmingham as you have been influenced by the anti-“outsiders who come in” view. I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that operates in every southern state based in Atlanta, Georgia. We have around 85 affiliated organizations in the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. We often share human, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. A few months ago the subsidiary here in Birmingham asked us to conduct an on-call nonviolent direct action program if deemed necessary. We readily agreed, and when the hour came we kept our promise. So I am here with several employees because I was invited here. I'm here because I have organizational ties here.
But basically I'm in Birmingham because there is injustice here. Just like the prophets of the 8th century BC. left their villages and carried their “thus speaks the Lord” far beyond the borders of their hometowns, and just as the apostle Paul left his village Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ into the most remote corners of the Greco-Roman world, so I am forced to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my hometown? Like Paul, I have to constantly respond to the Macedonian cry for help.
In addition, I am aware of the interdependence of all communities and states. I can't sit idly in Atlanta and worry about what's going on in Birmingham. Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We find ourselves in an inescapable network of reciprocity bound in a single garment of fate. What affects one directly affects everyone indirectly. We can never again afford to live with the narrow, provincial idea of an “external agitator”. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider within its borders.
You regret the demonstrations in Birmingham. I am sorry to say that what you said did not express similar concerns about the conditions that led to the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you will be satisfied with the superficial nature of social analysis, which only deals with effects and does not deal with the underlying causes. It is regrettable that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more regrettable that the city's white power structure left no alternative to the Negro community.
There are four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign: gathering the facts to determine if there is injustice; Negotiation; Self cleaning; and direct action. We went through all of these steps in Birmingham. It cannot be denied that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly separated city in the United States. His ugly record of brutality is well known. Negroes have received grossly unfair treatment in court. There have been more unsolved bombings on Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the country. These are the harsh, brutal facts of the case. Under these conditions the negro leaders tried to negotiate with the city fathers. The latter, however, consistently refused to negotiate in good faith.
Then, last September, there was an opportunity to speak to executives from the Birmingham Business Community. In the course of the negotiations, the traders made certain promises – for example, to remove the humiliating racial markings from the stores. On the basis of these promises, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Christian Movement for Human Rights in Alabama agreed on a moratorium on all demonstrations. Over the weeks and months we discovered that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, a short distance away, returned; the others stayed. As in so many previous experiences, our hopes had been dashed and a shadow of deep disappointment fell upon us. We had no choice but to prepare for direct action where we would present our bodies as a means to bring our case before the conscience of the local and national community. Given the difficulties involved, we decided to do a self-cleaning process. We started a series of workshops on nonviolence and asked ourselves repeatedly, "Can you accept beatings without taking revenge?" "Can you endure the torture of prison?" We decided to schedule our direct action program for Easter and found that this was the main shopping period of the year other than Christmas. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we believed this would be the best time to put pressure on traders to make the necessary changes.
Then it occurred to us that the mayoral elections in Birmingham were due in March and we quickly decided to postpone the action until after election day. When we found that Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor had collected enough votes to be in the runoff, we again decided to postpone the action until the day after the runoff so that the demonstrations would not get used to it were tarnishing the problems. Like many others, we waited for Mr. Connor to be defeated, and to that end we had to accept postponement after postponement. After supporting this community need, we felt that our direct program of action could no longer be delayed.
You may be wondering, “Why act directly? Why sit, march, and so on? Isn't negotiating a better way? "They are right to call for negotiation. That is, in fact, the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action is aimed at creating such a crisis and creating such tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to face the problem. It tries to dramatize the problem in such a way that it can no longer be ignored. My quotation of creating tension as part of the work of nonviolent resistance may sound quite shocking. But I must admit that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have spoken out seriously against violent tension, but there is a kind of constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth, just as Socrates thought it necessary to have tension in the mind generate, so that the individual from the binding of myths and half-truths in the unrestricted area of creative analysis and objective evaluation ng can rise, we must also recognize the need to create nonviolent gimmicks The kind of tensions in society that will help people rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct program of action is to create a situation so critical that it inevitably opens the door to negotiations. I therefore agree with you in your call for negotiations. For too long our beloved southern country has been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue and not in dialogue.
One of the key points in your statement is that the measures that I and my staff have taken in Birmingham are out of time. Some have asked, "Why didn't you give the new city council time to act?" The only answer I can give to this question is that the new government in Birmingham needs to poke about as much as the outgoing government before it takes action. We are sadly mistaken in feeling that the election of Albert Boutwell as Mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much gentler person than Mr. Connor, both are segregationists devoted to upholding the status quo. I hope Mr Boutwell is sensible enough to see the pointlessness of massive opposition to desegregation. But he won't see this without pressure from civil rights supporters. My friends, I have to tell you that without determined legal and non-violent pressure we have not made a single gain in civil rights. Unfortunately, it is a historical fact that privileged groups rarely give up their privileges willingly. Individuals can see the moral light and willingly give up their unjust attitudes; But as Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom; it must be asked of the oppressed. In all honesty, I have not yet participated in a direct action campaign which, in the opinion of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation, was "well timed". For years I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in every Negro's ear with penetrating familiarity. This "waiting" has almost always meant "never". We must conclude with one of our respected lawyers that "justice that is delayed too long, justice is withheld."
We have waited over 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving towards political independence at blazing speed, but we are still sneaking our horse and buggy to a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps those who have never felt the sharp arrows of segregation find it easy to say, “Wait.” But when you've seen vicious mobs lynching your mothers and fathers at will and your sisters and brothers at your whim drown; When you've seen hateful cops curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters. when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers suffocate in an airtight cage of poverty amid a wealthy society; When you suddenly find that your tongue is twisted and your speech is stuttering while trying to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that was just advertised on TV and tears well up in her eyes when you see man tells her that Funtown is closed to children of color and that threatening clouds of inferiority are forming in her little mental sky and that she is beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness towards white people. when you need to come up with an answer for a five year old son who asks, "Dad, why do whites treat people of color so mean?"; When you take a drive around the county and find it necessary to sleep in the uncomfortable corners of your car night after night because no motel will accept you. if you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs saying “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 never get the prestigious title of "woman". if you are tormented during the day and haunted by the fact that you are a Negro at night, constantly standing on tiptoe, never knowing exactly what to expect next, and plagued by internal fears and external resentments; When you forever struggle against a degenerating sense of nobodiness, you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of perseverance overflows and men are no longer ready to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope gentlemen you can understand our legitimate and inevitable impatience. They are very concerned about our willingness to break the law. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we are so diligent in urging people to obey the Supreme Court's 1954 decision to ban segregation in public schools, it seems paradoxical at first glance to deliberately break the law. One might ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of law: just and unjust. I would be the first to campaign to obey just laws. There is not only a legal but also a moral responsibility to obey fair laws. Conversely, one has the moral responsibility to disregard unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is not a law at all".
Now what is the difference between the two? How do you know if a law is just or unjust? A righteous law is a man-made code that conforms to moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is inconsistent with moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Every law that elevates the human personality is just. Any law that affects the human personality is unjust. All laws of segregation are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregator a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, replaces an I-relationship with an I-relationship and leads to people being relegated to the state of things. Therefore, segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically meaningless, but also morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Isn't segregation an existential expression of the tragic separation of man, his terrible alienation, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge people to follow the 1954 Supreme Court decision as it is morally correct. and I can ask them to break the segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.
Let us consider a more specific example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or majority majority group of a minority forces to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is a difference that has been made legally. For the same reason, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to comply with and that is willing to follow itself. This is equality legalized. Let me give you one more explanation. A law is unjust if it is imposed on a minority who, because of the denial of the right to vote, had no part in passing or drafting the law. Who can say that the Alabama legislature that made this state's segregation laws was democratically elected? All kinds of methods are being used throughout Alabama to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties where, while Negroes make up the majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can a law passed under such circumstances be viewed as democratically structured?
Sometimes a law is only unfair at first sight and in its application. For example, I was arrested for demonstrating without permission. Well, there is nothing wrong with having an ordinance that requires permission to parade. However, such an ordinance becomes unfair if it serves to uphold segregation and deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest.
Hope you can tell the difference that I am trying to point out. In no way do I advocate evading or opposing the law as the rabid segregationist would. That would lead to anarchy. Those who break an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with the willingness to accept the punishment. I contend that a person who breaks a law that the conscience says is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to awaken the conscience of the community for their injustice is in reality the highest respect expresses the law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this type of civil disobedience. The refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar was sublime because a higher moral law was at stake. It was excellently practiced by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, rather than submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To some extent, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party was a massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything that the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal". It was "illegal" to help and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Still, I am sure that if I had lived in Germany at the time, I would have helped and comforted my Jewish brothers. If I lived in a communist country today, where certain principles that are dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate not obeying the anti-religious laws of that country.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First of all, I have to admit that I have been very disappointed with the white moderator over the past few years. I have almost come to the unfortunate conclusion that the negro's great stumbling block in his stride towards freedom is not the white city councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more committed to “order” than justice . who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, over a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who keeps saying, "I agree with you in the end you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action." those who paternalistically believe that they can set the schedule for another man's freedom; who lives according to a mythical concept of time and constantly advises negroes to wait for a “more favorable season”. Shallow understanding of people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding of people of bad will. Lukewarm acceptance is far more confusing than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderates would understand that law and order exist to establish justice and that if they fail in that end they will become dangerously structured dams blocking the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the current tension in the South is a necessary phase of transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace in which all human beings are will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality. In fact, we who act nonviolently directly are not the creators of tension. We are merely bringing to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out openly where it can be seen and treated. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up, but with all its ugliness to be opened to air and light to the natural medicines, injustice, with all the tension that exposure creates, must be exposed to the light of conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
In your statement, you claim that our peaceful actions must be condemned because they incite violence. But is that a logical proposition? Isn't that like convicting a robbed man for having possession of money causing the evil act of robbery? Isn't that like condemning Socrates because his unwavering commitment to the truth and philosophical research sparked the deed of the misguided population in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't that like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and unceasing surrender to God's will triggered the evil act of crucifixion? We must see that, as the federal courts have consistently confirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease efforts to obtain his or her basic constitutional rights, as the search can provoke violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I was also hoping the white moderate would reject the myth about time regarding the struggle for freedom. I just got a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that people of color will at some point be given equal rights, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious rush. It took Christianity nearly two thousand years to achieve what it has. Christ's teachings take time to come to earth. “Such an attitude is based on a tragic misunderstanding of time, on the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the flow of time that will inevitably cure all diseases. In fact, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. I have more and more the feeling that people with illness used the time much more effectively than people with good will. We in this generation will have to repent not only for the hateful words and actions of bad people, but also for the terrible silence of good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work with God, and without that hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We have to use the time creatively, knowing that the time is always right to act right. Now is the time to deliver on the promise of democracy and turn our upcoming national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to move our national politics from quicksand of racial injustice to solid rock of human dignity.
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was quite disappointed that other clergymen would see my nonviolent endeavors as those of an extremist. I began to think that I was in the midst of two opposing forces in the negro community. One of them is a self-satisfaction force, which is partly made up of negroes who, as a result of years of oppression, have so little self-respect and a feeling of "someone" that they have become used to the segregation. and some bourgeois Negroes who, because of their academic and economic security, and because they benefit in some ways from segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is bitterness and hatred, and it comes dangerously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are emerging across the country. The largest and most famous is the Muslim movement of Elijah Muhammad. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the persistence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, have utterly rejected Christianity, and have come to the conclusion that the white man is an incorrigible "devil".
I have tried to stand between these two forces and said that we do not have to emulate the "doing nothing" of the self-satisfied nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. Because there is a better way of love and non-violent protest. I am grateful to God that through the influence of the Negro Church, the path of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that many roads in the south would by now flow with blood. And I continue to believe that when our white brothers dismiss those of us who take nonviolent direct action as "propagators" and "external agitators" and refuse to support our nonviolent endeavors, millions of negroes do so out of frustration and despair will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies – a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racist nightmare.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The longing for freedom finally manifests itself, and that is exactly what happened to the American Negro. Something in him reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without it reminded him that it can be attained. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the zeitgeist caught up with him, and with his black brothers from Africa and his brown and yellow brothers from Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the Negro of the United States is moving with great urgency to the promised land of racial justice. When one realizes this vital urge that has gripped the Negro community, one should easily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has a lot of pent-up resentments and latent frustrations and he has to let them go. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrims to the town hall; Let him go on freedom drives – and try to understand why he has to do this. If his repressed feelings are not released in a non-violent way, they will seek expression through violence; This is not a threat, but a fact of history. So I didn't say to my people, "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy dissatisfaction can be channeled into the creative outcome of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being called extremist. Obwohl ich anfangs enttäuscht war, als Extremist eingestuft zu werden, als ich weiter über die Angelegenheit nachdachte, gewann ich allmählich ein gewisses Maß an Zufriedenheit mit dem Label. War Jesus nicht ein Extremist für Liebe? "Liebe deine Feinde, segne diejenigen, die dich verfluchen, tue denen Gutes, die dich hassen, und bete für diejenigen, die dich verächtlich gebrauchen und dich verfolgen." War Amos nicht ein Extremist für Gerechtigkeit: "Lass Gerechtigkeit wie Wasser und Gerechtigkeit wie einen immer fließenden Strom rollen." War Paulus nicht ein Extremist für das christliche Evangelium: „Ich trage die Zeichen des Herrn Jesus in meinem Körper.“ War Martin Luther nicht ein Extremist: „Hier stehe ich; Ich kann nichts anderes tun, also hilf mir, Gott. “ Und John Bunyan: "Ich werde bis zum Ende meiner Tage im Gefängnis bleiben, bevor ich mein Gewissen schlachte." Und Abraham Lincoln: "Diese Nation kann nicht halb Sklave und halb frei überleben." Und Thomas Jefferson: „Wir halten diese Wahrheiten für selbstverständlich, dass alle Menschen gleich geschaffen sind. . . ” Die Frage ist also nicht, ob wir Extremisten sein werden, sondern welche Art von Extremisten wir sein werden. Werden wir Extremisten für Hass oder Liebe sein? Werden wir Extremisten für die Wahrung von Ungerechtigkeit oder für die Ausweitung der Gerechtigkeit sein? In dieser dramatischen Szene auf Golgatha wurden drei Männer gekreuzigt. Wir dürfen niemals vergessen, dass alle drei wegen des gleichen Verbrechens gekreuzigt wurden – des Verbrechens des Extremismus. Zwei waren Extremisten für Unmoral und fielen damit unter ihre Umwelt. Der andere, Jesus Christus, war ein Extremist für Liebe, Wahrheit und Güte und erhob sich dadurch über seine Umgebung. Vielleicht brauchen der Süden, die Nation und die Welt dringend kreative Extremisten.
Ich hatte gehofft, dass der weiße Gemäßigte diese Notwendigkeit erkennen würde. Vielleicht war ich zu optimistisch; Vielleicht habe ich zu viel erwartet. Ich hätte wohl erkennen müssen, dass nur wenige Mitglieder der Unterdrückerrasse das tiefe Stöhnen und die leidenschaftlichen Sehnsüchte der Unterdrückten verstehen können, und noch weniger haben die Vision zu sehen, dass Ungerechtigkeit durch starkes, beharrliches und entschlossenes Handeln ausgerottet werden muss. Ich bin jedoch dankbar, dass einige unserer weißen Brüder im Süden die Bedeutung dieser sozialen Revolution verstanden und sich ihr verpflichtet haben. Sie sind immer noch allzu wenig in der Menge, aber sie sind von großer Qualität. Einige – wie Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden und Sarah Patton Boyle – haben beredt und prophetisch über unseren Kampf geschrieben. Andere sind mit uns durch namenlose Straßen des Südens marschiert. Sie haben in schmutzigen, von Kakerlaken befallenen Gefängnissen gelitten und leiden unter dem Missbrauch und der Brutalität von Polizisten, die sie als „schmutzige Niggerliebhaber“ betrachten. Im Gegensatz zu so vielen ihrer gemäßigten Brüder und Schwestern haben sie die Dringlichkeit des Augenblicks erkannt und die Notwendigkeit wirksamer Gegenmittel zur Bekämpfung der Segregationskrankheit erkannt. Lassen Sie mich meine andere große Enttäuschung zur Kenntnis nehmen. Ich war sehr enttäuscht von der weißen Kirche und ihrer Führung. Natürlich gibt es einige bemerkenswerte Ausnahmen. Ich bin mir der Tatsache nicht unbewusst, dass jeder von Ihnen zu diesem Thema einige wichtige Standpunkte vertreten hat. Ich empfehle Ihnen, Reverend Stallings, für Ihren christlichen Standpunkt am vergangenen Sonntag, Neger auf nicht getrennter Basis zu Ihrem Gottesdienst willkommen zu heißen. Ich empfehle den katholischen Führern dieses Staates, vor einigen Jahren das Spring Hill College integriert zu haben.
Aber trotz dieser bemerkenswerten Ausnahmen muss ich ehrlich wiederholen, dass ich von der Kirche enttäuscht worden bin. Ich sage dies nicht als einen dieser negativen Kritiker, die immer etwas falsch mit der Kirche finden können. Ich sage dies als Prediger des Evangeliums, der die Kirche liebt; wer wurde in seiner Brust genährt; Wer wurde durch seine geistigen Segnungen gestützt und wer wird ihm treu bleiben, solange sich die Schnur des Lebens verlängert?
Als ich vor einigen Jahren plötzlich in die Führung des Busprotestes in Montgomery, Alabama, katapultiert wurde, hatte ich das Gefühl, dass wir von der weißen Kirche unterstützt werden würden. Ich hatte das Gefühl, dass die weißen Minister, Priester und Rabbiner des Südens zu unseren stärksten Verbündeten gehören würden. Stattdessen waren einige geradezu Gegner, weigerten sich, die Freiheitsbewegung zu verstehen und stellten ihre Führer falsch dar; allzu viele andere waren eher vorsichtig als mutig und schwiegen hinter der betäubenden Sicherheit von Buntglasfenstern.
Trotz meiner zerbrochenen Träume kam ich nach Birmingham in der Hoffnung, dass die weiße religiöse Führung dieser Gemeinschaft die Gerechtigkeit unserer Sache sehen und mit tiefer moralischer Besorgnis als Kanal dienen würde, über den unsere gerechten Beschwerden die Macht erreichen könnten Struktur. Ich hatte gehofft, dass jeder von euch verstehen würde. Aber ich bin wieder enttäuscht worden.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. 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.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and 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. 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, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, 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.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. 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.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.LL