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Martin Luther King is one of the most revered leaders of the 20th century. He was never elected to public office and never led an army, but his presence, force of character, and most of all, the compelling nature of his arguments, have given him a place amongst those who helped define who we are today. However, his memory has become so iconic, and so depersonalized that much of who he was doesn’t make it into the narrative. We don’t seem to really know him.
This month marks an anniversary that could give all of us a chance to know and understand this remarkable individual. It was fifty years ago that Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, AL for disturbing the peace. Dr. King was President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and he had gone to this most segregated of southern cities at the request of the organization’s local branch to help organize a peaceful campaign against the city’s harsh Jim Crow laws.
The conditions of his arrest were harsh, and many, including President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were worried for his safety. King wasn’t allowed to see a lawyer for more than 24 hours, was denied even a phone call, and when he asked for a writing pad and a pen, the request was denied.
After his arrest, a group of local clergy, several of whom were civil rights advocates, wrote a letter urging restraint in King’s non-violent protests and implying that he was an outside agitator. This set the stage for a magnificent letter, or more aptly, an essay on what the Civil Rights Movement was about. Just as important, King explained, the non-violent means African Americans were using to press their cause. Of course, since King wasn’t given anything to write with, he began writing his letter using a pencil and scraps of paper given to him by the jail’s janitor.
His explanations, and the basis of his arguments, are about defying unjust laws. To a Republic that was founded on the belief that it was necessary, at times, to defy unjust laws, this should have seem like a fundamental American right.
However, in the south, when it came to the way its African American citizens were treated, ‘unjustly’ somehow doesn’t seem an adequate enough description. Birmingham was perhaps the worst of the worst. The right to vote and the right of free association, all guaranteed under the Constitution, were denied. King’s answer, as he noted throughout the essay wasn’t violence or revolution. Rather, it focused on non-violent confrontation through civil disobedience. They simply weren’t going to take it anymore.
If this meant sitting at all white lunch counters, or entering a building through the white’s only entrance, or having a peaceful march, that’s what they were going to do. And if they got arrested, then they would go peacefully and face whatever treatment awaited them. King cited the Old and New Testaments, and explained that everyone in his movement had gone through a training program, a process asking them whether they could, as Jesus instructed, “turn the other cheek,” and whether they were ready for the harshness of a southern jail.
The essay takes a twist, not commonly cited, but important, particularly in the context of the times. He takes aim, albeit gently, against the moderates, both blacks and whites. Those, who he says, “prefer order over justice” or who didn’t think that the changes he and his associates were fighting for could be had without sacrifice.
King notes that these people often seem to have encouraged the African American population to wait for the right time, or as King said in his letter, a “more convenient season.” His conclusion, however, was that there is no right time to address injustice, other than the here and now. The essay is a moving message written under difficult circumstances. It is a remarkable insight into who Martin Luther King was and what he stood for. If you want to know the man, and not just the icon, read “A letter from a Birmingham Jail.”