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

Davis eventually returned home, where he graduated from a segregated high school. He left again to study at the prestigious Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama, where he heard the opposing approaches to winning civil rights from both Malcolm X and King. He participated in the march on Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and walked from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., demanding equal voting rights.

But it wasn't until he was attending a rhetoric class at the University of California at Berkeley in 1970 that Davis read King's epistle from jail. "I had heard his speeches and knew what he stood for, but I didn't read the Letter From Birmingham Jail until after Dr. King had died," Davis recalled.

Davis said his teachers at Tuskegee were afraid of King and what they believed was his overly aggressive strategy to stamping out segregation. They, like many white moderates throughout the country, wanted a more gradual approach to changing the social order of the South.

It was precisely that gradual approach that King attacked in his letter addressed to seven white Christian ministers and a Jewish rabbi. The clergymen had published an open letter in a local Birmingham newspaper, criticizing the Good Friday march's timing in the wake of a mayoral election that they hoped could bring about the change King desired. They called King an outsider whose extreme tactics would incite hatred and violence.

"We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense," the eight clergymen concluded.

A call for change

In his cell, furnished with a metal cot with no mattress nor overhead light, King began writing his response in the margins of a newspaper clipping of the clergy's open letter. He would later secure a writing pad and, during his confinement, send to his staff, via his visitors, paragraphs and pages that would later be crafted into a prison epistle.

At the beginning and conclusion, he tells his "fellow clergymen" that he normally doesn't respond to his critics or write at such length, but with little else to do in jail he would attempt to answer "sincere criticisms" coming from "men of genuine goodwill."

The letter is loaded with religious symbolism and biblical references that would resonate with ecclesiastical leaders. His writing from jail assumes the role of the ancient apostle Paul, to whom he compares himself by accepting an invitation to come to Birmingham just as Paul responded to "the Macedonian call for aid."

King then methodically picks apart his opponents' arguments calling for patience and compliance by using theology, reason and the emotion of personal experience.

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait,'" King writes, introducing a long litany of painful experiences his race faced under segregation.

"You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-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," he writes.

He blasts the logic of concluding that nonviolent demonstrations will incite violence. He asks if that's like "condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion."

King initially takes exception to his actions being called extreme but then embraces the description, as it puts the civil rights advocates in the same camp as Old and New Testament prophets, religious reformers and the nation's founders, who all denounced unjust laws.

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