Letter From A Birmingham Jail

 

On April 12, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. produced one of the great pieces of literature composed on U.S. soil. Locked up in Birmingham jail, with nothing but a pen and the margins of a local newspaper, Dr. King proceeded to respond to the supposed call to unity from Christian ministers, calling for an end of all demonstrations. More than a half century later, the words are as potent as ever.

The message reverberates through the decades. The Church was never meant to reinforce the status quo; the church is God’s challenge to the status quo. If you have never read these words, I am presenting the first portion for your consideration.

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16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
 While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, 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.

Moreover, 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.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

Last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. 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. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create 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, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. 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.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. 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 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.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Finishing Your Fast Well

Finish well.

I can’t tell you how many times I ended a fast gorging at a barbecue restaurant, only to be miserable a few hours later. And strangely dull in the days to follow as I went back to “life as usual.” So foolish. If you have been fasting, I dare you to consider finishing well.

Start with the physical: come off the fast slowly. As a general rule, raw fruits and vegetables are the way go for the first day or so. Specifically, here’s where I’ll be going in the next couple days:

  • Apples, grapes, watermelon or other easily digestible fruit with a high water content.
  • Vegetable soup. Not the canned stuff, and not creamed, it’s easy on the stomach and wonderful.
  • Eggs. Time to get some protein back in the system.
  • Sweet potatoes are supposed to be another winner. Not my favorite but I’m considering it.

But then embrace the spiritual parallel. In the same way you can physically digress by breaking a fast with all the wrong foods, you can emotionally and spiritually digress by re-engaging in a “life as usual” lifestyle. Don’t do it!

I believe the days right after a fast are as deeply important as the time you spent on the fast itself. Did you make some gains in the area of Scripture intake? Maintain the gain. Did you make progress in the area of prayer? Maintain the gain. Did you discover a heightened focus by scaling back on entertainment and social media? Maintain the gain. Did lust lose a little grip on you? Maintain the gain. This is not to say that you never watch a movie again, but it is to say you consider the possibility of a life other than “life as usual.”

Imagine a life of self-control. There’s a fun word.

Don’t let your fast end without some serious chewing on this potent concept. Consider this wild passage:

Make every effort to add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge SELF-CONTROL, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. If these things are yours and abound you won’t be unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord. (2 Peter 1:5-8)

I see so many believers come to God by faith and immediately embrace some degree of virtue. I’ve talked to singles who started believing Jesus and immediately made the decision to stop sleeping together. It’s virtuous. Then they begin to get into the Scriptures and learn the ways of God. They add knowledge. But then I’ll talk to the same guy who can’t shake porn. I have no self-control, he says.  Exactly. It’s time for more spiritual math. Add to your knowledge self-control.

Few disciplines work self-control into a soul like fasting.

If.

If you finish well.

So finish well.

Prepare your heart for the day after. The week after. Maybe you won’t be fasting physical nourishment. But you can embrace the fasting lifestyle. You can fast self-reliance, and boasting, and wasting your life. You really can choose to not live by bread alone … but every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Make these next couple days as holy as the last few days.

After all, this isn’t about you anyway. Our great breakthroughs are not the result of how hard we fast and pray and work; we have victory because our King spent 40 days in a desert where He did the ultimate fast, that led to the ultimate life, that took Him to the ultimate death where He fasted life itself. And then He said, It is finished.

With your eyes fixed on Him, go finish well.

 

Why Bother Fasting?

Why should I consider ignoring a growling stomach, bypassing entertainment, and denying myself of the legitimate need of nourishment? Because the discipline of fasting can do what nothing else will do in your life.

Simply defined, fasting is the voluntary abstaining from food for higher purposes. It is a potent way to forego lower pleasures for higher pleasures. And I dare you to consider it.

  • Fasting reveals. More than any other spiritual practice, I have found fasting to expose the things that control and subdue me. Sometimes my problem is that I don’t know what I don’t know. I feel like I’m self-aware. I feel like I know my heart. I feel like my motives are pure. But sure enough, a couple days into a fast and my idols and crutches and darkness rises to the surface. This is a gracious gift.
  • Fasting is humbling. Time and time again Scripture directs us to “humble ourselves.” I cannot delegate my own humbling. But how exactly do I humble myself? One of the most neglected ways was explained by David: “I humbled myself with fasting.” (Psalm 35:13). What an interesting insight. Another example of this is a day of fasting, known as the Day of Atonement  (Yom Kippur): “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and no do any work…” (Leviticus 16:29) We assume the biggest challenge to fasting is our appetite; in reality it’s our pride.
  • Fasting clarifies the will of God.  When King Jehoshaphat was in grave trouble, what did he do? He “resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.” (2 Chronicles 20:3) His fasting-prayer is one of my favorites in all of Scripture: “For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.” (2 Chronicles 20:12) Is there an issue where you need to hear wisdom and direction of God? Fasting is one of your best friends to enable you to discern what is the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God.

Is it possible that you need some things revealed? Do you need to take the humility call more seriously? Are you seeking God’s will, but still waiting on His answer? I dare you to embrace the call to fast. Lay aside your food and distractions for a day, or three, or more. Make yourself available to God in prayer and Scripture. Wash your face and brush your teeth (so you don’t ruin it with religious showboating). And then get ready to allow God to do what only He can do. Hope to see some of you at our prayer meetings this Tuesday through Thursday.

On earth as it is in heaven…