Thermometer or Thermostat? MLK Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail
“…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 go 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.”
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Martin Luther King Jr was a civil rights leader who transformed the conversation on race in the United States. He wrote this letter after being arrested while leading marches and sit-ins to protest racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Eight fellow clergymen of Alabama wrote an open letter asking him to cease his leadership of the demonstrations and to pursue justice through the courts. I was drawn to re-read the full text of the letter after reading Dr. Eric L. Motley’s essay, “On the 50th Anniversary, the Living Legacy of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Motley writes:
its ideas transcend the turbulent times in which it was written. Civil rights historian Diane McWhorter notes that the original conflict “was between not good and evil, but good and normal.” The brute racism that strikes us today as mass social insanity was in fact widely viewed in its time as an understandable, if not exemplary, “way of life” practiced by average, ordinary “good” people. Accordingly, Dr. King appealed not to racial extremists, but rather to the morally moderate majority that chose to remain silent, although the specific addressees were eight fellow clergymen from Alabama who had earlier written to him pleading that he call off planned boycotts and other demonstrations in an effort to seek a gradual end to discrimination.
Martin Luther King Jr. explains in the letter what the boycotts and demonstrations are. They are a form of direct action. He goes on to explain what direct action is and what they are trying to accomplish with it:
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 to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…
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.”
He goes on to refute the argument that time will solve for discrimination. He says that there is:
a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. 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. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.
Martin Luther King Jr. goes on to talk about the silence of the religious organizations around racial equality. He references earlier days of Christianity:
In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Although he is referencing churches in this line, this really struck me as a defining tenet for all organizations. True leadership comes from listening to your people but also challenging them. I had a tough time cutting this post down to just these quotes. I encourage you to read the entire text of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It is just as pertinent to the human rights issues that we face today.