MLK’s ’63 Letter Reverberates Today

“Make Some Noise”

The “Make Some Noise” exhibit features a bronze casting of the original door from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham jail cell. (Maria Bryk/Newseum)

The Newseum’s “Make Some Noise” exhibit is packed with some of the most powerful stories, images and artifacts of the 1960s civil rights movement — the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960; the 1961 Freedom Rides; the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1961.

Few stories in the exhibit have as much resonance as Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” the enduring missive the civil rights leader wrote to a local group of white Christian and Jewish leaders in response to their criticism of his nonviolent marches against segregation. A bronze casting of the original door from King’s jail cell is displayed in the exhibit.

Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 was a national symbol of the segregated South. African Americans were forced to attend inferior schools. Unfair laws barred them from voting. Those who fought for their rights were arrested. Those who marched faced attack dogs, fire hoses and police beatings. Churches and houses were bombed. People were killed.

On April 2, King arrived in the city to lead protests. On Good Friday, he was thrown into the Birmingham jail accused of parading without a permit after trying to lead a march to City Hall. The clergymen’s open letter, which was published in The Birmingham News the day of King’s imprisonment, called the protests unwise and untimely.

In the margins of the newspaper and on several sheets of scrap paper, King composed a 7,000-word rebuttal that outlined the dire state of race relations and the urgent need for nonviolent direct action. “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is considered a modern classic, containing a stirring message that reverberates through recent First Amendment and civil rights issues.

King’s name has been invoked in the growing debate surrounding the national anthem, with some arguing that he would never take a knee while the anthem is playing. In his own prescient words more than 50 years ago, King’s letter is a classic primer in civil disobedience that puts the current boycotts and police abuse protests in uncanny focus.

Right to Protest

“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. … Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country. … You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”

Unwise, Untimely Protests

“Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well-timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. … We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. … I guess 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, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Sit-ins and Marches

“You may well ask, “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that 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.”

Police Brutality

“You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence.’ I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. … I don’t believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would … see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys. … I’m sorry that I can’t join you in your praise for the police department.  … Maybe Mr. [Bull] Connor and his policemen have been publicly nonviolent … but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of flagrant racial injustice.”

Order and Justice

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens 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 that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.’ … 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.”

Protests and Violence

“In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? … We must come to see, as federal courts have consistently affirmed, that it is immoral to urge an individual to withdraw his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest precipitates violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”

Protests as Extremism

“I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as ‘rabble-rousers’ and ‘outside agitators’ those of us who are working through the channels of nonviolent direct action and refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies. … The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. … If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.”

Protesters as Patriots

“One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be … the young high school and college students, young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders courageously and nonviolently sitting-in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

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