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In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. called Birmingham, Ala., “by far the worst city for race relations in America.” Also known as “Bombingham,” the city had become infamous for at least 50 bombings of black homes and churches in the years since World War II, along with Sheriff Bull Connor’s fire hoses and snarling police dogs during Freedom Summer in 1961. And all of that was before the awful slaughter at the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, when white supremacists blew up the spiritual home of the local civil rights movement during crowded Sunday services, killing the “Four Little Girls” memorialized by Spike Lee’s devastating film of the same name and wounding 23 people.
So it’s hard to imagine that when King wrote his famed “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he was facing national criticism for bringing the wrath of the civil rights movement down upon a hapless city that, despite its ugly past, was supposedly doing its best to change. But that’s exactly what provoked King’s great work. On the eve of the minister’s April 1963 direct action campaign against Birmingham, its citizens had just held an election that repudiated the administration that backed Bull Connor (though Connor’s allies were challenging it in the courts). A covert alliance between conservative blacks and white businessmen concerned about the city’s brutal image was trying to find ways to dismantle local segregation gradually. And many Birmingham black people were skeptical of King’s crusade. The civil rights leader went to jail that Good Friday, April 12, 1963 — on the trumped-up charge of parading without a permit — at least partly because almost nobody else would. Three-quarters of the city’s black ministers, for instance, at first withheld support from King’s campaign.
But the rebuke that prompted King’s letter was a statement by eight white Birmingham religious leaders denouncing his moves against the city. The eight men praised the emergence of “a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems” in Birmingham; they attacked King, though not by name, as an “outsider”; and they urged “our local Negro community” to protest its grievances in the courts, not in the streets. Thanks to King’s letter, the eight went down in history as having been on the wrong side of the fight for justice, but in fact, all of them had at least weakly denounced segregation and the white-supremacist violence that bolstered it, and at least a couple had faced white Birmingham’s wrath by welcoming blacks to their churches.
And the clergymen weren’t alone in their condemnation of King: As Taylor Branch details in “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963,” Time magazine called his Birmingham campaign “a poorly timed protest” and the Washington Post insisted it was “prompted more by leadership rivalry than the real need of the situation.” The New York Times praised the new administration of Mayor Albert Boutwell and editorialized that it didn’t expect change in Birmingham “overnight” — and cautioned that King “ought not to expect it either.” President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, meanwhile, were fed up with the Atlanta minister’s jail-going ways and resisted his wife Coretta’s pleas to intervene.
Even coming to King’s “Letter” without that context, an astute reader can sense something eating away at the soul of the great leader. It’s painful to read. King’s suffering is more than the fact that he’s in jail — “Jail helps you to rise above the miasma of everyday life,” he told supporters once. And it’s not just that he’s in “the hole,” confined in solitary even though his celebrity status had forced his jailers in other cities to treat him with kid gloves. No, the man is miserable because his critics have forced a lonely confrontation with the possibility that he’s wrong: wrong about the pace of change in Birmingham, wrong about the need for direct action, wrong about leaving Coretta for Birmingham and jail only days after the birth of their second daughter, Bernice.
It’s the intimacy and vulnerability of King’s “Letter” that gives it power. He speaks to us as a leader, as a father, as a scholar, as a sinner. It’s at turns prophetic (critics might say pompous):
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark 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 20 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?’; when you take a cross-county 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 ‘nobodiness’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
It’s bitterly angry:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last 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 the 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection …
“Let me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership … I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen …. I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, ‘follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.’”
And it’s occasionally apologetic:
“If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
King’s feverish work on the “Letter” from his solitary jail cell convinced some of his worried followers that their leader was finally losing his mind, succumbing to the plagues of doubt and persecution and constant overwork he’d already endured for more than a decade. The Birmingham movement was stalled; they were waiting for directions from King about its future, and meanwhile he was pressing his visitors for more paper to continue writing a rejoinder to some religious colleagues nobody else cared about. He began it in the margins of the local newspaper story about the eight clergymen’s appeal. His followers smuggled drafts in and out of the jail, finally helping finish the “Letter” and get it out to supporters, because they saw it as therapy for their poor stressed-out leader.
And when it was published, his supporters’ skepticism about its power seemed justified. Nobody outside the movement paid attention to it, and the Birmingham campaign continued to sputter. Ultimately, the campaign, along with King’s “Letter,” became ringing historical success stories only because of a combination of tragedy, serendipity and courage in the weeks after King’s jailing. The day King was released, a white postal worker with a history of mental illness commenced a “Freedom Walk” from Washington, D.C., to Mississippi to protest segregation. William Moore made his way into Alabama and told a reporter he was going to give Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett a letter asking him to “be gracious” and grant blacks their civil rights. Hours later he was found dead by the side of a highway, shot in the head. Moore’s quixotic crusade and martyrdom moved blacks and whites and even President Kennedy, who’d been unimpressed by King’s 10 days in solitary in the Birmingham jail. It helped reignite what Branch called “the sacrificial energies” of the civil rights movement, and volunteers began streaming to Birmingham to strengthen King’s crusade.
The ultimate victory of the campaign, though, was guaranteed when hundreds of Birmingham’s young people, some as young as 6, began volunteering to violate the order against demonstrating and go to jail if necessary. This was no small test for King, to risk the school careers, the safety, even the lives of young black children in Birmingham’s awful jail. Again the city and the movement divided over whether to let the young people march. Again King backed the high-stakes strategy, and the children’s crusade began. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring stories of the entire civil rights movement: Hundreds of black children, teens and college students peacefully took to Birmingham’s streets, facing not only jail but Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses. (Fuddy-duddy moment: Branch’s account of Birmingham youth taking over downtown, in a disciplined riot of rebellion and joy, made me think of the new “mob” craze — where young folks use cellphones and e-mail to converge on public spaces to play pranks — and wish they were thinking up ways to change the world with that energy, not merely entertain it.)
Photos of their bravery and persecution (a tiny girl upended by the cannons of water from the fire hoses; a teenage boy standing impassive while a snarling German shepherd tears into the flesh of his stomach) captured the world’s sympathy. Thousands followed them into the streets, until the jail and a spillover outdoor holding area were too full to arrest anyone else. Birmingham’s conservative black leaders flocked to King’s cause, and its white leaders knew they had to give in. They reached an accord to dismantle segregation in Birmingham — beginning with downtown stores’ dressing rooms, ending with lunch counters — barely three weeks after King left jail. King’s gambles had paid off (although the deadly September church bombing would prove that all civil rights victories of the era were only partial).
How did King know both times that the high-stakes strategy was the right one? He didn’t. He talked, he argued, he prayed, he meditated; each time, he took a solitary leap. His example shouldn’t encourage grandiosity in his admirers. As King reminded his readers in the “Letter,” to many blacks he was a sellout moderate, always taking the conservative, low-stakes choice. “I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community,” he wrote. On one side were the masses of black people too tired and “drained of self-respect” by racism to protest; on the other were the angry forces of black nationalism, especially Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, “made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable ‘devil.’” So King’s decision-making can never simply be used to justify the most extreme or radical choice.
In the end, though, his Birmingham success made his “Letter” from jail big news. The New York Times agreed to publish an abridged version in its Sunday magazine, but the New York Post got a copy and printed much of it, so the Times bailed. Other magazines picked it up, including the Atlantic, and it went down in history as a defining document of the civil rights movement. Today you can find it all over the Web, used to defend a lefty’s civil disobedience in response to the war in Iraq and a Libertarian’s direct action against the war on drugs, even the Green Party’s 2000 insurrection against the Democrats. Last week National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice invoked “Birmingham in 1963,” though not King’s letter specifically, to defend the administration’s move to topple Saddam Hussein.
Some of King’s admirers may be appropriating his cri de coeur a little too easily. I didn’t think, for instance, that the Iraq war rose to the level of an injustice that demanded civil disobedience, let alone violence, in protests last March, when war opponents shut down city streets in San Francisco and New York. (Although I think Rice’s appropriating the symbolism of the civil rights movement was far more brazen, given that her boss sold the war based on Saddam’s threat to the rest of the world, not to his oppressed citizens.) Unlike much of the anti-war direct-action faction, King was always mindful of the need to change his critics’ hearts and minds, not repel them, and he used civil disobedience only as a last resort. The world wasn’t there yet on Iraq, and maybe never would be, given the hard-to-defend nature of Saddam’s regime and the complexity (despite the dissembling) of the U.S. rationale for war. And yet, King’s “Letter” made me ask myself if I’ve grown too cautious — would I be someone counseling “Wait!” to the Birmingham activists?
That’s the power of this amazing document, made stronger by King’s willingness to share his own doubt and pain: It makes you think about your own. I’m glad it’s out there so King can still speak with anyone who’s searching his or her heart, and American history, for guidance about when and how to act against injustice.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.