Examining MLK’s letter from Birmingham jail: what did he really mean?


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As we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day this week, it’s crucial to separate the real man from the myth. Only then can we truly understand Dr. King’s beliefs and his lessons for us. His famed letter from jail in Birmingham is an ideal way to delve deeper in Dr. King’s ideology. It’s a timely read, as many of the philosophies expressed in the letter are more applicable than ever today, especially the concept that we cannot afford to sit back and wait for justice – we must demand it and not settle for anything less. Here’s a review of the key concepts in Dr. King’s letter.


1 Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.


Dr. King described the web of humanity as “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Everyone is affected by injustice, even if it’s indirectly. Dr. King firmly believed that everyone living in the United States was part of the country and that there were no “outsiders.” This extends to all people globally and that injustices from abroad creep into our own lives.


2 Constructive, nonviolent tension is necessary for growth.


When a community or government fails to confront issues like injustice and racism, nonviolent resistance is necessary. Dr. King believed this may entail creating tension, which he felt could be beneficial when utilized appropriately. This concept was not unique to him; Socrates likewise thought tension in the mind was a way to release oneself from myths and misapprehensions and to find truth. Tension can “open the door to negotiation,” allowing for a dialogue, instead of oppression.


3 Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.


Waiting for an oppressor to grant freedom will never yield results because they personally benefit from the oppression. Rather, the oppressed must demand their freedom, which at the time Dr. King wrote from Birmingham was primarily denied via the practice of segregation. People then were told to wait, which ultimately led to no action. The old adage saying “justice too long delayed is justice denied” continues to be relevant today.


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4 How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?


This question is as old as man’s attempts to codify behaviour. Dr. King felt that unjust laws were “out of harmony with the moral law.” He used St. Thomas Aquinas’ rule of thumb that laws degrading human personality were inherently unjust. That included segregation and failure to have voting rights because they created false superiority for whites and false inferiority for people of colour. Furthermore, people who created the unjust laws were not subject to them themselves, nor were the minorities who were suppressed by them involved in the creation of these laws. Therefore, these laws were not democratically structured and unjust.


5 Civil disobedience is not new, and it is sometimes necessary.


Civil disobedience – the refusal to submit to unjust laws – was used by the Ancient Babylonians against Nebuchadnezzar, as well as by early Christians fighting religious oppression by the Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Boston Tea Party was another prime example of artfully executed and justifiable civil disobedience. Remember, the actions of Hitler were technically “legal” at the time, while what Hungarian freedom fighters did to counter Hitler’s atrocities was “illegal.” Dr. King agreed there were definitely circumstances that called for civil disobedience, and human rights violations is one of them.


6 The white moderate is a grave disappointment.


Dr. King struggled with white moderates who were more concerned with order than with justice in his day. Order can create the illusion of peace, while people who are being denied their freedom are told to “wait for a more convenient season.” Dr. King outlined how problematic taking the safe and non-confrontational road was in issues of humanity or justice, and felt that this problem was often more harmful than overt oppression.


7 Complacency and do-nothingism are equally dangerous.


Dr. King was often thought of as an extremist, even by his Black community, because some of his brothers didn’t have the will to fight that he possessed. There were several reasons for this complacency. Some people had been oppressed and segregated for so long that they lost their self-respect and sense of autonomy. Other Black Americans had moved up the socioeconomic ladder to the point where they became insensitive to the plight of those who hadn’t done as well. Overall, a sense of hopelessness had set in, as well as the rise of Black nationalism, which had a much different approach that could backfire. Dr. King tried to find a balance between these two sides, continuing to espouse nonviolent protests.


8 Disappointment in the church shattered Dr. King’s dreams.

Dr. King originally thought he would be supported by the white church (in which he included ministers, priests, and rabbis) because he felt racial integration was surely a just cause they would champion. Sadly, this was not the case, and he was aggrieved that even religious leaders stood behind segregation, regardless of its immorality. Some religious leaders said the gospel had no role in deciding social issues like segregation. He felt it was “un-Biblical” to distinguish between the sacred and the secular in this manner and challenged the religious to see beyond their own ideology and consider humanity and spirituality as a whole.


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9 We will win our freedom.

In spite of the many obstacles described in Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham, he was buoyed by the support he did receive from some clergy. “Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times,” he wrote. This gave Dr. King confidence that eventually oppressed people in America would gain their freedom. The nation has a long history of people rising above difficult opposition, especially slavery, and if they could do that, they could triumph again. “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

If the issues raised by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sound familiar, it’s because they are still troubling the world today. If your workplace, nonprofit, or other organization is challenged to start the kind of dialogue Dr. King wanted to spark, Tough Convos is here to help guide you. We provide online experiences, discussion facilitation, and training to address the lingering issues of racism, intolerance, and oppression in workplaces and social life. To learn more, call us at 858-876-8176, or reach out online and we'd be happy to discuss our solutions.