50 Years Later: Words from ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’


As the “Dream Continued” remembrance proceeds today in Washington D.C., I prefer to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. through his words penned from a jail cell in Birmingham. I prefer to remember not just the lofty dreams of Reverend King, but the day-to-day struggles that spurred one man to dream.

Here is an excerpt:

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.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; 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 have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are 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. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. 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. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Click for the full Letter from Birmingham Jail

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I believe we should not be content just to dream. We should embrace our moral responsibility to speak out, to write, to petition, to fight the unjust laws of this world in which we still live.

Gun advocate suggests slavery could have been prevented had slaves been granted right to bear arms

Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day.
Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day.

Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day, a made-up holiday to celebrate guns and gun owners, went on CNN on Friday to defend the day’s events. He suggested that Gun Appreciation Day, which this year falls on January 19th and just two days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is actually in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights legacy. In fact, says Ward, slavery “might not have been a chapter in our history” had slaves been armed.


Let’s highlight the quote of awesomeness:

“The truth is I think Martin Luther King would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.” — Larry Ward, gun rights advocate

He’s not wrong, actually. Slavery might not have gone so well if slavers had kidnapped Africans and stolen them from their homes and families, shipped them across the ocean in chains and deplorable conditions, and then promptly handed them a rifle the minute they were taken off the boats. Further, firearms were a means whereby slaves revolted against slavery. Slaves who gained access to arms often participated in frequent (but rarely taught) uprisings throughout the South. But, unfortunately, these uprisings were isolated incidents that rarely resulted in anything more¬†than painful retribution against unfreed slaves and/or kin, indicating that access to firearms and resulting violence was not alone sufficient to end the -institution- of slavery.

Let’s also examine for instance the notion that Martin Luther King, Jr.¬†in particular would support arming slaves to revolt or protest against slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy was non-violent protest — the notion of returning violence with non-violence as a form of civil protest.

Famously, King was hit in the head with a rock during one of the marches he participated in, and still did not call for violence.
Famously, King was hit in the head with a rock during one of the marches he participated in, and still did not call for violence.

King once said of the non-violence movement: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In the end, however, the whole suggestion is absurd because we are talking about a time when slaves were bought and sold as property; when slaves were considered sub-human and incapable of complex thought by nature; when it was illegal to teach a slave to read. The hypothetical wherein slaves might have been granted the right to bear arms since this country’s founding — and in so doing “stop slavery” — is so far removed from the historical context of slavery and how it came about that it becomes patently absurdist.