Thinking about My Letter from Birmingham Jail

In reading Reverend Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, I’m struck at once by the single-minded tenacity and the character of the man. His presence was that of a charismatic preacher, yet his words are those of a thoughtful and learned scholar. He was both of these things and more.

I often wonder when I read his words written so many years ago about my own commitment to a cause greater than myself. It’s the same whispering voice we all hear when we think of those who fled the oppression of Nazi Germany in World War II. The question we all must face as we look in the mirror. What is it? Where is my letter from Birmingham Jail?

     In his letter, Dr. King lays out in detail the problems he faces and, to a large extent, the disappointment he feels from his own leaders in the black religious community. But he doesn’t stop there. He calls out members of the religious community in general, and all people who profess belief in change and action for moderate protest. He lays out his case using descriptive phrases  and impassioned writing that he was able to draw from the depths of his soul. King also relied on the words and deeds of the many great thinkers and philosophers who came before him to make his case.

   All these things made the most eloquent of cases to bolster his argument that the time for speeches was long past, and the time for action was now.  For these reasons, I am moved by the “I Have a Dream” speech which came to represent so many things to so many people over the years. But in his letter, written from Birmingham Jail, I am elevated to a higher plane when reflecting on the anguish and torment buried deep and yet resonating loudly through the passages of time. Here is a man burdened with all that life may throw at you, as he sits imprisoned in a Birmingham jail, and instead of resorting to violence and anger, he channels his energies to create a charter for others to live and to die for.

Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail not only resonates down the passages of time, it soars to new heights in this age of uncertainty and anger. It moves me even now, as I read it and listen to a man passionately inspired to write:

The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like 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 smoldering 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?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”’ when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “Nobody-ness”-then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

These powerful words were interspersed with references from the apostle Paul to the theologian Paul Tillich, from the philosopher Socrates to St. Augustine. Dr. King argued that “everything Adolf Hitler did was legal” as a response to those questioning his civil disobedience of unjust laws. Dr. King laid out a logical yet impassioned defense for all those who might stand in his way or deter him from reaching his goals. To my mind, this is the heart and soul of who this man was. 

We should take to our hearts the passionate spirit of his “I have a Dream” speech, but we should commit to read and to adhere to the principles found in King’s letter from Birmingham Jail.

And above all, we should ask ourselves-where is our letter? In our lives, what are we doing to commit to a cause greater than ourselves? In the end, we all stand alone, and our actions are judged as we leave this Earth by our legacy and commitment to those things that cannot be tallied with the aid of a ledger or spreadsheet. It is what we commit to believe in that envelops us from the depths of our soul and past the limits of our bodies. That is the question to answer. What is it? Where is your letter from Birmingham Jail?

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