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A timeless work that changed history

Celebrating the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”

A policeman takes Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy into custody in Birmingham, Ala., on April 12, 1963. Associated Press Photo

A timeless work that changed history
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This year marks the 60th—diamond anniversary—of Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Two generations of American citizens have been inspired by King’s convicting letter, but few know he wrote it just after being moved from solitary confinement. King later reported that in the sheer darkness of solitary confinement, when he despaired that he could see no light, he realized that he was not alone.

How did King end up in jail on Good Friday, 1963? King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait, records the Birmingham episode. A year earlier, King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its local affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., entered into negotiations with the city to end some of the draconian restrictions of segregation. Much of life there was segregated—declared to be separate but equal—and this did not just mean sitting in different places or using different doors. It also meant gross inequality and scarce resources for children’s education, high levels of unemployment or underemployment for black Americans, and the constant threat of violence, sometimes by private citizens, but also local police.

Month after month negotiations were delayed, stalled, or interrupted, resulting in the SCLC’s decision to hold a nonviolent march during Easter week in 1963. It was a stressful time for King and his team, ensuring that marchers were trained in King’s “nonviolent direct action” approach and convincing reluctant community leaders that this was the time for unified public action. “Somehow God gave me the power to transform the resentments, the suspicions, the fears, and misunderstandings … into faith and enthusiasm.”

Then, just before the march, fearing that King would almost certainly be arrested, some of his closest advisors counseled him not to participate because he would be needed outside of jail to tell the story of the innocent men, women, and children harassed by Birmingham police chief Bull Connor. Only King could raise the funds needed to keep the movement alive.

After prayerful consideration, King responded, “I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from. But I have to make a faith act.”

A faith act. The rest is history. On Good Friday, King led a peaceful march of thousands of people and, inevitably, was arrested because he broke an unjust application of ‘law’ that only some citizens could hold parades and marches. King writes in his letter that the city unfairly refused permits to its black citizens for outdoor meetings and marches. He also wrote that it is entirely just for a government to have policies designed to promote law and order, but it is unjust when government applies that law differently based on someone’s race.

You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon.

The marchers behaved peacefully and ultimately won their cause, but it came after multiple marches, including notorious instances when Birmingham’s police set dogs on children and used fire hoses to disperse the marchers.

What of King upon arrest? No one knew what would happen to him. His wife, at home with four small children, was frantic. King wrote about those hours in darkness in solitary confinement when he could not see or sense light:

You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below. You might have thought I was in the grip of fantasy brought on by worry. I did worry. But there was more to the blackness than a phenomenon conjured up by a worried mind, Whatever the cause, the fact remained that I could not see the light.

A day later King was moved to a traditional cell after intervention from Washington, D.C. He was speechless upon learning that his family was fine, funds were being raised, and that national attention was focused on Birmingham. At that moment he recalled being “silenced” by a “profound sense of awe. I was aware of a feeling that had been present all along below the surface of consciousness, pressed down under the weight of concern for the movement: I had never been truly in solitary confinement: God’s companionship does not stop at the door of a jail cell. I don’t know whether the sun was shining at that moment. But I know that once again I could see the light.”

That was Easter weekend, 1963. A few days later, from his cell, King wrote his majestic letter, a timeless, sparkling diamond reflecting the nobility of the American dream for all, rooted in the fundamental laws of the Judeo-Christian tradition. King’s arguments ring just as powerfully today as they did six decades ago. Timeless truths hold timeless power.

You can read Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” here.

Editor's note: Quotes are from King’s Why We Can’t Wait, reprinted in part in A Testament for Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986).

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of 15 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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