In April of 1963, Martin Luther King was in the Birmingham jail for organizing demonstrations when he read a joint statement issued by the clergymen of Birmingham – Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Epsicopal, you name it – saying the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely” and urging local black people not to support them.
His response belongs to the ages, as Seward said of Lincoln. In my opinion Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail“ is one of the most powerful bits of writing in the history of the English language.
He quotes Jesus and Amos and Socrates and Thomas Aquinas and John Bunyan and Martin Buber and Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln, and he focuses their statements with scientific precision on the points that he is making. King’s irresistible moral logic, together with the passion and grandeur of his writing, cut through the objections of the local clergy like a splitting mall through cordwood, and I mean a big twelve-pounder.
As a father, I am especially moved when he speaks about his little girl:
“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?”
You have to admire King’s closing. He has just obliterated any claim these clergymen thought they had to being men of God, but there’s no hard feelings:
“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.