"We Are Caught in an Inescapable Network of Mutuality"

Martin-Luther-King-1964.jpgOver the past several years, on my various blogs, I’ve pointed to or republished the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written to the white clergymen of that city, to honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here it is again, with my emphases added.  I implore you to take the time to read it today. (It is especially trenchant for those of us who are white churchmen.)

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement
calling
my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my
work and
ideas.
If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would
have little time
for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no
time for
constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your
criticisms are
sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient
and
reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced
by the
view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president
of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern
state, with
headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across
the South,
and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share
staff,
educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate
here in
Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such
were
deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise.
So I,
along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here
because I have
organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets
of the
eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond
the boundaries
of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried
the gospel of
Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the
gospel of
freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian
call for
aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I
cannot sit idly
by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is
a threat
to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a
single garment
of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we
afford to live with
the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States
can never be
considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am
sorry to
say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the
demonstrations. I am
sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social
analysis that deals
merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that
demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the
city’s white
power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to
determine
whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.
We have gone
through all
these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice
engulfs this
community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United
States. Its ugly
record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in
the courts.
There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in
any
other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of
these conditions,
Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently
refused to engage
in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s
economic
community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the
merchants–for
example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises,
the Reverend
Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights
agreed to a
moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we
were the
victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.
As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep
disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action,
whereby
we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of
the local and
the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a
process of self
purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked
ourselves: “Are
you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of
jail?” We decided
to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for
Christmas, this is
the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program
would be
the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring
pressure to bear on
the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and
we
speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the
Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in
the run off,
we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the
demonstrations could
not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated,
and to this
end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we
felt
that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t
negotiation a
better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very
purpose of direct
action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension
that a
community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It
seeks so to
dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
My citing the creation of tension as
part of the
work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am
not afraid of
the word “tension.
” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of
constructive,
nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was
necessary to create a
tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half
truths to the
unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for
nonviolent
gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark
depths of
prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it
will
inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for
negotiation. Too
long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue
rather than
dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates
have
taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city
administration
time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham
administration
must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly
mistaken if we
feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to
Birmingham. While Mr.
Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists,
dedicated to
maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to
see the
futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure
from devotees
of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in
civil rights without
determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that
privileged groups
seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and
voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups
tend to be more immoral than
individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the
oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action
campaign that
was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of
segregation.
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.” We must come to see, with one of our
distinguished
jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The
nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political
independence, but
we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
Perhaps it is
easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts 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.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly
a
legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s
decision of 1954
outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather
paradoxical for us
consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and
obeying
others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I
would be the first
to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey
just laws.
Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St.
Augustine
that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is
just
or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of
God. An unjust
law is a code that is out of harmony with the 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. Any law
that uplifts
human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All
segregation statutes
are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the
segregator
a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation,
to use the
terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for
an “I thou”
relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is
not only
politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.
Paul
Tillich has said
that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic
separation, his awful
estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954
decision of the
Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation
ordinances, for they
are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a
code that a
numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make
binding on
itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a
majority compels a
minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as
a result of
being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say
that the
legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically
elected?
Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming
registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a
majority of
the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such
circumstances be
considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have
been
arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having
an
ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when
it is used
to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful
assembly and
protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I
advocate
evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy.
One who
breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the
penalty. I
submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who
willingly
accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community
over its
injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced
sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of
Nebuchadnezzar, on
the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early
Christians, who
were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than
submit to
certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today
because
Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented
a massive
act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and
everything
the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and
comfort a Jew in
Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would
have aided and
comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain
principles dear to
the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s
antireligious
laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I
must
confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white
moderate.
I have
almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his
stride toward
freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white
moderate, who is
more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence
of tension
to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with
you in the goal
you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically
believes he can
set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and
who
constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding
from
people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill
will.
Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the
purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the
dangerously
structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white
moderate would
understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition
from an
obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a
substantive
and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human
personality. Actually,
we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring
to the
surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it
can be seen and
dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be
opened with all
its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with
all the tension its
exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before
it can be
cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned
because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like
condemning a robbed
man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like
condemning
Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries
precipitated the
act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like
condemning
Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will
precipitated
the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have
consistently affirmed,
it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional
rights because the
quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation
to
the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He
writes: “All
Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is
possible that you
are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to
accomplish
what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems
from a tragic
misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the
very flow of
time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used
either destructively or
constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more
effectively
than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely
for the hateful
words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
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. 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.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed
that
fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began
thinking about the
fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a
force of
complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are
so drained
of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and
in part of a
few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and
because
in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the
masses. The
other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating
violence. It is
expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation,
the largest
and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s
frustration
over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people
who have
lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded
that the
white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the
“do
nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For
there is the
more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the
influence of
the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.
If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am
convinced,
be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as
“rabble
rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if
they refuse to
support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair,
seek solace and
security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a
frightening
racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually
manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.
Something within
has
reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it
can be
gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his
black
brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the
Caribbean, the
United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of
racial
justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one
should readily
understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up
resentments
and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer
pilgrimages
to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If
his repressed
emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence;
this is not a
threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your
discontent.” Rather, I have
tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative
outlet of
nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I
continued to
think about the

birmingham jail.jpg

matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was
not Jesus an
extremist for love:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that
hate you, and
pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist
for justice:

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not
Paul an
extremist for the Christian gospel:
“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was
not Martin
Luther an extremist:
“Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John
Bunyan:
“I will
stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham
Lincoln:

“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold
these truths to
be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we
will be
extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Will we be extremists for hate or for
love? Will we be
extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that
dramatic scene on
Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were
crucified for the same
crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below
their
environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and
thereby rose
above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of
creative
extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic;
perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the
oppressor
race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and
still fewer
have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and
determined action. I
am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the
meaning of this
social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity,
but they are big
in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs,
Ann Braden
and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.
Others
have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy,
roach
infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty
nigger-lovers.”
Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of
the
moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of
segregation.
Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed
with
the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am
not unmindful
of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend
you, Reverend
Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your
worship service
on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating
Spring Hill
College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been
disappointed
with the church.
I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find
something
wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who
was nurtured
in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true
to it as long as
the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery,
Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that
the white
ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead,
some have
been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting
its
leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained
silent
behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white
religious
leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral
concern, would
serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I
had hoped
that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

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.

  • Albert the Abstainer

    What a brilliant letter.
    The world lost a beautiful scholarly and compassionate advocate for the disenfranchised when Martin Luther King was shot. What an inspiration, and now the challenge: Will we do our part to fully realise that vision. King shows us the way. It is simple and it is hard, and it only happens when each of us, driven by the fire of compassion allows our life to be changed through engagement with all of our brothers and sisters.

  • http://gracerules.wordpress.com/ Liz

    Thank you, Tony, for posting this letter. I had never read this letter in its entirety and am glad you urged us to take the time to read it all. I found the letter inspiring, courageous and passionate – full of love and mercy and justice – and as always, I found Martin Luther King, Jr. as relavent today as he was 40+ years ago. May his courage, love and passion live on through us in all that we do.


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