Birmingham’s Famous Letter

Almost every city these days has a significant street or boulevard named after Martin Luther King, Jr. As the MLK holiday approaches, I think of how Birmingham has more of a historical claim to the man than most cities, even though among those claims is the ignominious distinction of having jailed him.

Although Birmingham has borne the collective shame of the Jim Crow 60′s for all the years since, it is what it is (more hopefully, it was what it was). And the world has an enduring and beautiful reminder of Dr. King’s legacy in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which is literally required reading in civics classes across the country and should be especially meaningful to us.

King wrote in his letter of his deep disappointment with the white moderate, who felt segregation would end at some indefinable point of time in the future, and the clergy, who disapproved of his timing and felt the objectives could be achieved by negotiation. King pointed out that there was no “right time” and that great change did not come about without the tension necessary to drive it.

Although he had visitors who helped gather and publish his letter, it is remarkable to realize this work, with its many historical references, was penned in the confines of a jail cell, with no library, office, or so much as  a nearby telephone to use in consulting a source. In fact, King didn’t even have paper for most of his writing. He had to draft much of the letter in the margins of a newspaper and various paper scraps brought in and out of jail by confidants.

Like any Baptist minister, he quotes scripture frequently, but he also infuses his case for action with historical observations from Socrates, St. Augustine, Jefferson and Lincoln. As a mom, though, it’s King’s comments concerning children that I find most compelling. This father, regarded as one of the most eloquent speakers of his time, admits a loss for words:

…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-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you…

King states in his Letter, “One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” In recognition of a real hero, thank you, Dr. King, for your legacy to rest of the world and your letter from Birmingham.