Martin Luther King, Jr.

Letter From Birmingham Jail

“I must confess, I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’.”

“Disappointment drives our young men to some desperate lengths,” a momentarily tender Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) said to a young Maya Angelou upon their first meeting in 1960. “That’s why we must fight and win. And remember, we are not alone. There are a lot of good people in this nation.”

King’s sad tenderness quickly vanished once he left their conversation and he became, in Angelou’s words, “a fighting preacher, armed and ready for the public fray.” 1

The culmination of King’s work in the civil rights movement was long and intense2 but the few years following this meeting with Angelou were the most intense. He organized and was arrested for peaceful but disruptive protests in Birmingham, Alabama; King and other leaders marched on Washington and he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech; he met with President Johnson at the White House and on July 2, 1964 the Civil Rights Bill was passed.

The protests in Birmingham and King’s missive written from jail, now known as Letter From Birmingham Jail represented a major turning point in the movement.

Martin Luther King's mugshot, 1963 featured in Martin Luther King Jr.s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in the Examined Life Library.
Martin Luther King’s incarceration photo for protesting in Birmingham, Alabama 1963. “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here” wrote King.

The Letter was written by King on April 16 to clerical leaders that had called on him to pursue legal means rather than civil disobedience (he was arrested for failure to comply with a court-ordered injunction against “boycotting, trespassing, parading, picketing, sit-ins, kneel-ins, wade-ins, and inciting or encouraging such acts”).

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham” wrote King, “But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”

King responds to requests to ‘wait patiently’ and articulates why the proposed legal means to change the situation of Black Americans were not enough.

We have waited for more than 340 years for our Constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining you 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 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?’…

King also detailed calmly and beautifully (probably for the thousandth time) how these proposed legal means were also not possible.

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 non-violent 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 1955 James Baldwin wrote of the nature of oppression: “It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society.”

The intensity of King’s letter swells too on this word ‘oppression’.

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.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, 11/3/67. “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?” Source: Everett/CSU Archives.

I opened this entry on Letter from Birmingham Jail with the quote from Angelou because she articulates something which, in my very shallow knowledge of King, seemed one of his defining features.

Angelou met him and noted his kindness, even his sadness. Not a beleaguered sadness that aches the soul, but a personal sadness, private. And yet he was so confidently expansive, generous and humorous. King had remarkable complexity, contradiction even.

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’. … 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 Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great swells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

In Letter From Birmingham Jail King wrote “I must confess, I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’. He speaks of his method of protest, but I think he is also speaking of himself. How does one carry all that massive pain and still find room for the profound love as demonstrated in the above passage?

“Redemptive suffering had always been part of Martin’s argument which I found difficult to accept” Angelou noted honestly and while I admire King, I agree with Angelou. Meeting pain with kindness, with love, and more than that, meeting pain with growth and hope. It is utterly extraordinary.