A Gift, A Letter, and a Drowning Man: The Legacy of “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

A Gift, A Letter, and a Drowning Man: The Legacy of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” January 16, 2014

There’s an old Zen story that does like this:


Once there was a great warrior. He had never been defeated, and he continued to win every confrontation into old age. He was known far and wide as the only warrior who had never suffered a defeat.

This of course was a challenge to younger warriors, and one day a young man appeared to challenge the old warrior. He, too, had never suffered defeat. His technique had become famous: he allowed his opponent to make the first move, then exploited that move and always won the day.

Despite the concern of his students, the old warrior consented to join in combat with the young man.

On the day of the battle, the young man walked up to the old warrior and spat in his face. The old man did not move. Then the young man began to hurl insults. This had no affect either. Then the young warrior began to throw dirt and stones at the old warrior. The old warrior stood, impassive.

Finally, exhausted by all his effort, the young warrior bowed to the old warrior, admitting defeat.

After the young man had left, the disciples of the old warrior gathered around him. “Teacher! I would have split that young man’s skull open! How could you allow him to hurl such insults at you?”

The old warrior replied, “Consider this: if someone offers a gift and you will not receive it, to whom does that gift belong?”


Nonviolent resistance embraces the techniques of both the old and the young Zen warrior. Like the old teacher, nonviolence does not accept the gift of violence or insults. Like the young warrior, nonviolence provokes a first response, then watches the opponent to see what the first move will be.

On April 12th, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for parading without a license. There wasn’t a great deal of reading material in the jail, but one of the people arrested with King had been allowed to keep a newspaper he had in his pocket. That newspaper contained an editorial written by eight Euro-American Alabama clergy titled “A Call for Unity.”

The editorial began with the premise that, yes, African Americans deserved equality, but—that said—that said equality should be allowed to happen slowly—in the fullness, shall we say, of time. Without hubbub and marches.

King had heard this argument many times—just calm down and let the South change, slowly but surely. He had heard it from Euro-American centrists; he had heard it from within the African American leadership itself.

King began writing a response immediately. He used the bottom of his shoe for a desk. He wrote first on the margins of the newspaper; then on toilet paper; then on scraps provided for him by an African American trusty in the jail.

What he wrote is one of the great documents in US history, up there with the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. What he wrote is an argument based on the Unitarian thought of Henry David Thoreau’s masterwork, “Civil Disobedience.”

MLK knew that violence was the nature of racism. But it is also a basic human response to threat. In his letter King says this:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:

collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist;


 self purification;

 and direct action.

We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.


Besides the moral high ground of nonviolence, King also knew that his cause itself stood for a higher order of morality. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau had asserted, “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.”

King was asking for that plank back. He saw the higher moral order, as did Thoreau and  Tolstoy and Gandhi before him. Rather than getting the plank back, the Civil Rights movement got a small concession: I’ll let you hold onto my plank once in a a while, when you’re going down for the third time.

This is the unfinished business of what King started. And the continuing challenge to those who strive for a higher moral order. Still, today, I must restore the plank that I wrestled from a drowning human being. And there are many, many of those.

King’s letter is there still to remind us: “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”


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.

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