National Edition

50 years later: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' still resonates

Published: Sunday, April 14 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., right are taken by a policeman as they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Ala., on April 12, 1963.

Associated Press

Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat alone in a 54-square-foot jail cell, depressed by his surroundings and troubled about what lay ahead for the civil rights movement he was leading.

He had been arrested two days earlier on Good Friday for violating a court order that required a parade permit for a large group to walk along a city sidewalk. Good Friday is a traditional marching day for many Christians who symbolically honor Jesus' walk to Calvary where he would be crucified. But in the segregated South of the early 1960s, a march through the streets of Birmingham, Ala., on this religious holiday landed about 50 civil rights demonstrators in jail.

In solitude and with little more than natural daylight, King would eventually begin writing an epistle that would underscore the religious underpinnings of the movement and become what scholars and historians say is one of the great documents of American history.

His Letter From Birmingham Jail would not only condemn the eight white fellow clergymen to whom he wrote, who had publicly criticized his demonstration as "unwise and untimely," but justify to a larger audience of religious and secular, black and white, the purpose and tactics of taking immediate action in nonviolent protest.

"Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation," King wrote. "We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."

While scholars have debunked some of the mythology surrounding the 20-page letter, its influence has reached beyond the civil rights movement to become a powerful religious and political argument for social justice and is required reading in many history, philosophy, religion, political science, writing and rhetoric courses in colleges across the country.

"One reason we keep reading the Letter From Birmingham Jail is because it’s one of our clearest articulations of the promise of this country and where this country has failed," said Wallace Best, a professor of African-American religious history at Princeton University. "But (King) is not down in the mouth about it. ... When I read it I am proud that I’m American; I’m proud of my Christian tradition and hopeful about the nation itself."

The social order

Rev. France Davis, longtime pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, reads his copy of the letter three or four times a year, gleaning new ideas from the document of more than 7,000 words. In his latest reading, Davis was impressed by King's argument that an oppressed race can't wait for justice.

"It jumped out at me. It reminded me of what people are saying about the economy, to just wait and it will turn around. Or, of Congress getting nothing done," Davis said.

In his letter, King responds to his critics' calls for patience by saying, "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.'"

Davis grew up in rural Georgia, the same as King. While Davis' father was among those King lamented had come to accept the segregated customs of the South, Davis himself was different. At a local gasoline station, the 16-year-old Davis told a white patron that he wasn't "his boy." The confrontation generated threats from the local Ku Klux Klan and prompted Davis' father to send his feisty son to live with relatives in Washington, D.C.

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