In these days of political upheaval and disagreement, it’s easy to forget that great transformation can only come out of great struggle. It’s even easier to lose track of the importance of small weapons wielded with great strength. If we turn the clock back over fifty years, we re-visit a movement built on non-violence, helmed by a man who knew that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Writing from a jail cell, Martin Luther King, Jr. drew on the wisdom of his elders to create a document that would change the world.
MLK Jr was named after the man known for igniting the great Protestant Reformation. The word “Protestant” includes the term “protest”; Martin Luther’s form of civil disobedience setting ninety-five questions for debate down on paper. He then posted these on the front of his church. While these ideas had been circulating, Luther is remembered for pulling them together and giving people words to explain their inchoate longings.
Nearly five hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr. followed his antecedent’s path. He grew up in the segregated south and was educated both there and in liberal New England. After earning his doctorate, this minister became involved in the nascent Civil Rights movement, serving in key leadership positions and writing speeches instead of church homilies. When he found himself in jail in 1963, he wrote down his ideas regarding equality, racism, and social justice. While not as famous as his “I Have a Dream” speech, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” help to cement his legacy as a great thinker as well as a ‘social justice warrior.’
During his lifetime, MLK Jr. was reviled by both those who felt he should remember his “place” and those who felt he wasn’t pushing hard enough for change. His 1963 letter spoke to both of these camps. He famously rejected the idea that his activities were “unwise and untimely,” and that he was an “outsider” without understanding of conditions in the segregated South. In setting forth the need for equality and justice, he penned ideas that are still relevant in 2018 as we consider the work of such activists as Emma Gonzalez, Rose McGowan, and the nameless horde populating the Women’s Marches.
King begins his letter by noting that all activists must move beyond their immediate surroundings. Comparing himself to the Apostle Paul, he noted that “so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town,” following that with the famous “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He then points out that one must look beyond the immediate action to the cause behind it. When we watch the news and hear of riots in St. Louis or protests for LGBTQ equality today, we would do well to think back to these words.
King next points out the real purpose of any protest – “to foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” He also points out that these issues are not new, but have been left to fester for decades: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights,” noting that those in a position of comfort have no reason to make change until it is demanded by the oppressed.
When I read “Letter from A Birmingham Jail,” it’s impossible to evade King’s position on current events. He famously compares segregation laws to those on the books in Nazi Germany, noting that “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.” What would he say about solving current immigration questions, or the homeless crisis? While the particulars may change, we see from his writing that he believed in speaking up, moving away from the comfort of current reality and doing what is needed to instigate change.
Published on May 19, 1963, the open letter became quickly part of American political rhetoric. In a time noted for visceral action, it preserved important ideas for the long haul, documenting the beliefs that moved the United States through a time of great strife. It also cemented King’s place as someone willing to act on behalf of certain ideals of liberty. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” survives not only as a historical document, but as a call to action for all of us. Even a letter, it seems, has the power to change society.