MLK’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ resonates 60 years later

by Leonard Greene

Sixty years ago, a Baptist minister sat in a southern jail cell and penned the most important written statement of the civil rights movement. 

Months before the March on Washington, where he delivered his spellbinding “I Have a Dream” speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., jailed with about 50 other peaceful protesters, wrote a response to local clergy members who had chastised him for upsetting Alabama’s status quo. 

Without a light or even a mattress on the bedsprings, King wrote what would become the classic “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” an intellectual and philosophical treatise that challenged white moderates for decades to come. 

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice,” King wrote. 

“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”  

King, who was isolated from the rest of the protesters, wrote the original manuscript in the margins of a newspaper, on pieces of toilet paper on small scraps of paper smuggled from the jail by King’s lawyers. 

Those early notes were destroyed. But one of the earliest drafts of the letter, which fell into the possession of King’s literary agent, Joan Daves, was recently discovered. 

On April 12, 1963, Good Friday, King marched with his supporters from the steps of the Sixth Avenue Zion Hill Baptist Church toward City Hall and the Birmingham central business district in direct violation of an injunction prohibiting the protest  

King was arrested along with his top lieutenant, Ralph Abernathy, and about 50 other African American protesters for parading without a permit. 

King was taken to Birmingham jail and separated from his supporters. He refused to post bail, instead drawing the media’s attention on the injustices of segregation. 

The day after his arrest, eight prominent white clergymen published a statement in the Birmingham News urging protesters to stop, and chastising outside agitators for stirring up trouble. 

“We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” the statement said. “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”  

Despite his surroundings — or maybe because of them — King felt compelled to respond. 

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people,” King wrote. 

“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.’ ”  

Those who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement or criticized Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem would benefit from reading King’s letter  

And if you have read it before, it’s worth reading again, particularly in these times of trouble and racial division. 

It’s poetry and protest all at once with a message that’s timeless. 

Leonard Greene is a reporter and columnist at the New York Daily News.