essay canon dispatch no. 10 — “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” by MLK, Jr. (60’s)

image found here
MLK, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael, 1966. image found here

[CN: White supremacy, anti-Black racism]

And so the capstone to the CNF Essay Canon reading project is “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

It doesnt seem like a good idea to scribble too much about this piece, pointing out its rhetorical strategies, metaphors, and allusion to a wide range of religious texts. Instead ill pull out some choice quotes which are very striking in light of the current uprisings.

First the context from the decadal canon article:

On April 12, 1963—Good Friday—King, Ralph Abernathy and 52 other people were arrested in Birmingham, Ala., for marching in violation of an injunction prohibiting any “parading” or “demonstrating,” including even “conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches.” King was put in solitary confinement. Four days later, he wrote, first in the margins of The New York Times and later on paper smuggled in by his lawyer and a Negro trusty, this “letter” to eight white, liberal Birmingham clergymen who had published “A Call for Unity,” which criticized non-violent direct action, labeled King an outside agitator and argued that the courts alone should deal with civil rights. 

The “Letter” is a direct response, and the author of the Canon article argues that the text is convincing evidence that the essay, even when it’s technically a think-piece for a current event, and thus journalistic, has the capacity for high literary art.

The fourth paragraph of the letter has that famous sound byte:

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.

The “inescapable network of mutuality” speaks against the individualist/competitive ethos of Capital. And the “outside agitator” dog whistle is something still employed at Ferguson and Baltimore. Just like back then, it stinks of benign racism: “This couldn’t have been done by our Blacks! Our Blacks are decent behaving because made them docile.”

On the righteousness of direct action:

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.

On the need for confrontation in the pursuit of racial justice:

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.”

White folx love to discipline and patronize Black activists by spitting MLK quotes, not reflecting on how he was killed. Here’s a quote they seem to miss:

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.

[…] 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.

The remaining bulk of the piece draws parallels between the movement’s struggles and the those of Christian resistors of draconian laws. His working of quotations are indeed beautiful. And the expansion of the term “extremist” from something pejorative to a word that highlights how change for the better comes from the margins; extreme as the outermost people.

An amazing sentence occurs towards the end:

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.


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