50 Years after MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” What Can We Learn?

It was April, 1963, and Martin Luther King, age 34, had five more years to live. And we have now had fifty years to answer his letter.

Seven to eight years before, he had come to national prominence as leader of the bus boycott staged by the black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama. The boycott had begun when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man… and that small act of courage and defiance had jump-started the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Raised in Atlanta, the son, grandson and great-grandson of ministers, King was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Smart, hip, articulate, gutsy, idealistic and charismatic, at 27, he had led the boycott for over a year until the Supreme Court had ruled that Montgomery’s segregation laws violated the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. Now, President of the Atlanta-headquartered Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, writing his thoughts on the margins of a newspaper, responding to eight white, Alabama clergymen who had criticized his “outsider” activism.

“I am here because injustice is here,” King wrote, “…compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. … Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” And, he declared: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. … Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Thus, on the first page of what would become a 14-page testament, King has averred two of his life themes: that we are all connected; and, injustice must be confronted. Next, he takes on his fellow clergymen who have rebuked him as an “outside agitator.” “Birmingham is probably the most segregated city in the United States,” he reminds them, then recriminates about their own failure—and other white leaders’ failure–to “grapple with underlying causes.” As antidote, he describes his methodology: (1) collect the facts; (2) negotiate; (3) purify the self; (4) take direct action. Again, he reminds his would-be counselors: “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro houses and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.”

A “friendly Negro trusty” provides him with scraps of paper, and in the following pages King annotates, illustrates and continues his “grappling.”

What can we learn 50 years later? For one thing (and not superficially!): the value of a Liberal Arts/Humanities education (and, of course, in King’s case, a theological one as well). Long before “no child left behind” and standardized testing and testing (and testing scandals!), we observe how a gifted, dedicated student, allied with dedicated teachers, can master the musical scales of rhetoric while plumbing the depths of logical analysis. Among the sources King cites for his thoughts and actions are Socrates (his courage to challenge conventions); Reinhold Niebuhr; St. Augustine (on just and unjust laws); Martin Buber (on “I and Thou” relationships); John Bunyan, Jesus of Nazareth; St. Paul; Martin Luther; and T.S. Eliot.

King is a man who has read widely and thought deeply and he has learned to make distinctions. Between “justice” and “law,” for example. What is the difference? he wonders. “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.” And, deeper, and loftier: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” And, he will not be deceived: “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.”

“Collecting the facts,” and clearly expounding his moral position, King now describes the difficult processes of “negotiation,” “self-purification” and “direct action.” He understands the hard road ahead: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” He understands the isolation he must face, the scorn from professed, but lukewarm, allies who “paternalistically” believe they can “set the time-table for another man’s freedom.” He underlines the need for taking direct action and for seizing the moment: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts… of [those] 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.”

What can we learn? Where are we now?

50 years later, it is not only Birmingham, but our nation and our world that is bombed and bombing; convulsed with terrorism, with “justice” threatened everywhere, men, women and children cower in fear of “the other,” arm themselves against their neighbors, dutifully march to the beat of Controllers who enjoin them to be “resilient”; to shop till they drop; to cheer the team; to bail out bankers; to do as they’re told; to conform; and, advise them not to “grapple with underlying causes”!

In addition to examining just and unjust laws, moral and immoral, brave and cowardly behavior, King’s letter of conscience probes our modern psychologies. “When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Later in the letter, he writes of “Negroes who… are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation.”

“Nobodiness” and a hunger for “somebodiness”! He is talking of alienation—our contemporary anomie, a sense of purposelessness that pervades our mass-media-consumerist world. We need only look around us to find a world more technologically “connected” than ever, but increasingly segregated by class; access to power; religious and political ideologies; a continuous struggle for resources and wealth. Simultaneously, it’s a world fatally united with xenophobia–a sense of “us against them.”

“You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” cowboy Bush declared, using the tragedy of 9/11 to justify killing and displacing over a million Muslims in Iraq. And, ballasting our fracked economy with our endless “war on terror,” (“Bomb-Bomb-Iran” McCain has called for a 100 years’ war!), we and our allies can devastate Libya, occupy Palestine, threaten Iran with nuclear extirpation, seed civil war in Syria, and on and on, without a moment’s pause! (Can we really suppose they “hate us for our freedoms,” and overlook the fact that we are killing, maiming, torturing, and occupying where they live?)

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” King warned in his letter; and even Samuel P. Huntington, who, in the 1990s, laid the academic/intellectual foundations for a “clash of civilizations” warned: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.”

King wrote of the “constructive, nonviolent tension… necessary for growth” and “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.” Again, he wrote that “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

Again, on the need for creative tension: “We see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension … that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

King challenged; he alerted; he upheld conscience and truth; he urged reason and fairness. He actualized our highest principles. He pointed a way.

Poet-playwright-journalist-fictionist-editor-professor, Dr. Gary Corseri has published work in Dissident Voice, The New York Times, Village Voice, CommonDreams and hundreds of other publications and websites worldwide. His dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta, and he has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library. Gary can be reached at gary_corseri@comcast.net. Read other articles by Gary.