Monday Morning Thoughts: The Real MLK Is Captured in Birmingham Letter

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

When most Americans think of Martin Luther King, they think of the national call for unity in the “I Have a Dream” speech.

They especially hear the call: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

This is perhaps the most quoted and also the most misinterpreted of King’s statements.

But I think we would do better to read the “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” to understand the reality of MLK.

King was being held in the Birmingham Jail allegedly for violating an Alabama law against “mass public demonstrations,” as he led a Good Friday demonstration to bring national attention to treatment of Blacks in Birmingham. 

Eight white local clergy members wrote “A Call For Unity” in which they called for an end to the protests and instead to “find proper channels” to achieve “a better Birmingham.”

King in his famous “Letter” responded, “your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”

King directed his frustration not at the racists and ardent segregationists, but rather to the white moderate, whom he saw as the ultimate obstacle.

He wrote: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ ”

He added, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

This rings true today that the great enemy of justice are those “moderates” and, dare I say, even “liberals” who “feign outrage at societal injustice, but whose outrage conveniently disappears when real change threatens their status.”

Those who are more outraged when they are personally inconvenienced than at the conditions that led to the demonstrations and calls for change.

Also from Letter from Birmingham, King distinguished between means and ends.

He wrote, “So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”

King distinguished between Just and Unjust Laws.

He writes, “One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. 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.”

How do you define a just law?

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just.”

On the other hand, “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

King then goes on to provide a more “concrete example of just and unjust laws.”

He explained, “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”

On the other hand, he continues that “a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”

King writes, “Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because they did not have the unhampered right to vote.”

Finally, MLK notes that for the oppressed to “passively cooperate” with “an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressors.”

Finally, while the term “black lives matter” is of course a relatively recent rallying call, the concept is not new at all.

James Reeb was a white Unitarian minister, who was killed March 11, 1965, in Selma, after being attacked by a group of white supremacists.

The death was shocking to the nation.  But while mourning the death of Reeb, King also pointed out that Jimmy Lee Jackson, a Black civil rights activist and a deacon in the Baptist church, was killed a month earlier on February 18, “while unarmed and participating in a peaceful voting rights march in his city, he was beaten by troopers and fatally shot by an Alabama state trooper.”

Said King, “Somehow the President forgot to mention Jimmy, who died first. The parents and sister of Jimmy received no flowers from the President. The students felt this keenly. Not that they felt that the death of James Reeb was less than tragic, but because they felt that the failure to mention Jimmy Jackson only reinforced the impression that to white America the life of a Negro is insignificant and meaningless.”

In other words, King in 1965 was calling out the fact that Black life did not matter in America.  But people still don’t understand the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” missing that implicitly when we say “Black Lives Matter” we are saying “Black Lives Matter (too).”  Because for most of the history of this nation—they haven’t.

MLK understood this better than anyone.  Anyone simply reading the favorite phrase from “I Have a Dream” misses the breadth and depth of King’s message to America.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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