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Letter from Birmingham City Jail

On the top row of my library shelves is a book titled ‘’The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought’’ It is a book that I re visit between making a decision of what to read next. It contains over 100 contributions. Essays from Karl Marx ‘’The Opium of the People’’ – Albert Schweitzer ‘’Reverence for Life’’ – the work oft quoted by Kevin Rudd ‘’Letters from Prison’’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘’Autobiography’’ Other writers include, Solzhenitsyn, Schweitzer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nietzsche. None however is more earnestly satisfying than Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”.

Martin -Luther King (image courtesy of blackpast.org)

Martin -Luther King (image courtesy of blackpast.org)

The world recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Kings historically important ‘’I have a Dream’’ speech but this masterpiece of literature. This sublime piece of eloquent prose is apt to be overlooked. King wrote this letter in longhand after being arrested and placed in jail. His words convey all the force of a man unrelenting in his desire for a better place in a world full of racism and bigotry. But he does so with a powerful, but dignified calmness that is breathtaking.

I never tire of re reading this masterpiece of writing. It stirs me that men of his ilk have written words that command attention. When we read works like this, we should do so with the view to being radically changed. This letter did so for me.

I mentioned Kings work to one of my Facebook friends who is an avid reader of fine literature. His name is Daniel Carr and this is what he had to say.

John – I hope you’re well. Just wanted to say thank you for recommending Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ to me. I somehow only got around to reading it this morning and have been reflecting on it all day. A beautiful piece of writing – and with such heart behind it!
The themes of just and unjust laws and the moral failure of telling a minority group ‘wait, in time’ were particularly resonant.
Anyhow – thanks again for passing it on, it’s always good to read something moving to keep our vigilance and fire up our spirits.

If you also want your spirits fired up here is the link.

http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/king.pdf

6 comments

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  1. Adam Smith

    The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave Americans a vision of society free from racial inequality in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But some of us remember when President Kennedy ordered federal troops to ensure the safety of James Meredith, the first African American to attend the university of Mississippi. In early 1963, he enforced the desegregation of the University of Alabama. In April 1963, television viewers were shocked to see marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, attacked with dogs, fire hoses, and cattle prods. Finally, in June 1963, Kennedy asked Congress for legislation that would outlaw segregation in public accommodations. Two months later, Martin Luther King, Jr., organised and led a march on Washington, D.C., to show support for the civil rights movement.

    More than 250,000 people gathered peaceably at the Lincoln Memorial to hear King speak. “I have a dream,” he told them, “that my little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. Kennedy’s public accommodations bill had not yet been passed by Congress when he was assassinated, on November 22, 1963. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, considered civil rights his top legislative priority. Within months, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It contained several parts, including vital provision barring segregation in most public accommodations. Passage of the act was, in part, a reaction to Kennedy’s death. But it was also most surely a reaction to the brutal treatment of African Americans throughout the South.

    Civil rights laws had been passed by Congress in 1957 and 1960, but they dealt primarily with voting rights. The 1964 act was the most comprehensive legislative attempt ever to erase racial discrimination in the United States of America. It was enacted after the longest debate in Senate history, and only after the first successful use of cloture to end a civil rights filibuster. I have spent many months many months living in the USA covering a period of 25 years.

  2. ()

    While King is an important figure in the advancement of civil rights in the US, it should be recognised also that the movement has a long history with any number of milestones. In 1896, the US Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson) upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal’.

    Homer Plessey was born a free man and was an “octoroon” (someone of seven-eighths Caucasian descent and one-eighth African descent). However, under Louisiana law, he was classified as black, and thus required to sit in the “colored” car while on the railway. In a test case, supported by the railway company which didn’t want the expense of ‘separate’ carriages, Plessey was convicted by Judge Ferguson and fined $25, a considerable sum at the time.

    The subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court saw the court uphold the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine. In summing up:

    We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it

    Well it was 100 years ago.

    The ‘separate but equal’ doctrine lasted until 1954 when Oliver Brown, supported by the NAACP took his case against The Board of Education Topeka to the Earl Warren dominated Supreme Court which unanimously overturned that principle

    We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

    King was an important, unique figure in the Civil Rights movement but he stood on the shoulders of those who went before.

  3. Adam Smith

    As recorded in the ancient Bible, slavery was, and in some society’s remains firmly entrenched in many parts of our world. In the U.S.A. in 1787, slavery was firmly entrenched in their Constitution. Slaves had no rights under the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Moreover, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that even free African Americans (blacks) could not be citizens of the United States, that they “had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” Although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery (see the movie “Lincoln”) in 1865, after the Civil War many southern states passed “Black Codes”- forbidding blacks from voting, serving on juries, ho;ding certain jobs, moving freely, owning firearms, or gathering in groups. These laws were similar to the slave codes that controlled blacks before the Civil War. To remedy such discrimination, Congress passed the 14th Amendment, which gave dark-skinned people citizenship – a status previously defined only by the states. The amendment also promised dark-skinned people “equal protection of the laws”. Southern States were required to ratify the 14th Amendment before they could reenter the union. In the final stages of the Lincoln Movie we can see how the southern leaders were required to accept their defeat. In the 14 Amendment we can read the “Due Process Clause – … No state shall… deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”

  4. Tenzin Nyinjey

    Thanks for the beautiful letter. I needed this. My spirt has been battered, bruised and on the verge of collapsing lately. The letter rejuvenated my spirit, more so after reading it I listened to Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” My body is tired, but my soul at rest. A sigh of relief for the time being.

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