04/16/2013 03:16 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

King's 'Letter From Birmingham Jail'

April 16 commemorates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's 'Letter From Birmingham Jail.' Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility.

Eight white clergy published an a piece on April 12, 1963 in the local Birmingham newspaper titled: "A Call for Unity." They wrote:

"We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued 'an appeal for law and order and common sense,' in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed."

The statement's third paragraph was particularly stinging for it could have easily been written by any number of white business leaders in opposition to Project C, by referring to the seemingly universal view that saw King as an outside agitator:

"However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely."

The clergy specifically noted in their statement that they supported the efforts of "certain local Negro leadership, which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area." A number of Negro clergy, jealous of King, would have most likely supported this suggestion. If for no other reason than it would have placed them in a role of local prominence.

Alluding to the promise offered with Boutwell's victory over Connor in the Birmingham mayoral race, a view shared by the Kennedy Administration, they added:

"Just as we formerly pointed out that "hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions," we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham."

The eight clergymen closed with a direct appeal to Birmingham's Negro community to reject King's methods on nonviolent civil disobedience:

"We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense."

Though a mere 428 words it was the most powerful statement against King and the SCLC's efforts in Birmingham. Among King's detractors this was no doubt the most stinging blow. Not once did the clergy address King by name, but their references could not conceal -- nor was there any real attempt to do so -- that he was the target of their disagreement.

The Negro clergy, who did not directly participate in the movement, could be dismissed due to their jealousy of King and fear of possible reprisal had they actively participated, as could the Kennedy Administration, who viewed the problem through a myopic political lens. But these eight white clergymen were not apologists for Jim Crow. They had engaged in public displays of defiance against the tradition of segregation. They had been critical of Alabama Governor George Wallace's inaugural address in January. Several of these clergymen had taken personal stands not only in support of civil rights, but also against issues such as the death penalty and later the Vietnam conflict. Their theological perspective was rooted in a place where King believed he could find solidarity. This reality no doubt fueled King's dismay as Jones slipped him the newspaper that contained the clergymen's statement passed by the guards on duty. But Jones was doing more than covertly keeping King abreast of what was happening on Birmingham's streets while he was incarcerated.

On Jones' next visit he was greeted with a letter that King said he was writing in response. By Jones' own admission he did not take the writing serious in the beginning, he was busy holding up the legal end working with Belafonte who was in contact the Kennedy Administration, and Walker, who coordinated events on the ground in Birmingham, especially with King incarcerated. Moreover, the response was written on the sides of newspaper or whatever King could get his hands on. With each subsequent visit Jones found it challenging to keep King focused on the business at hand, King seemed preoccupied with writing a response to the eight white clergy. But Jones decided to pacify King. Writing may be the only thing that stood between hope and hopelessness as he languished in Bull Connor's jail.

What Jones did not know at the time was that the newspaper he had slipped to King -- outlining the clergy's strong disagreement of his methods -- would unleash a political, theological, historical, and moral epistle that had been dormant in King's soul. The final product, King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail," is an unparalleled document in American history. It is a 6,800-word retort that is masterfully organized around what Aristotle considered the three primary forms of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logic. It remains, in the opinion of many, not only King's best work of 1963, but represents the pinnacle writing of his illustrious career.

It is unlikely any other group of dissenters could have unearthed the prophetic impulses that King demonstrated in his Letter. Yet, King's response was as if he had made the clergymen stand proxy for those opposed to Project C as he deftly moved from humble pastor to prophetic theologian, and to an American historian deeply committed to the country's democratic values seemingly at will. While the clergy limited their critique to the events of Birmingham, King not only responded to their local charges but he also widened the response by taking the clergymen on a whirlwind historical journey as he reviewed the ongoing epic battle between justice and injustice. King drew on the Judeo-Christian traditions of the Old Testament prophets. He linked the movement to the Exodus narrative, so critical to the liberation efforts of African slaves and their theology in America. He called on the thinking of the Roman Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, American Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, and poet T.S. Eliot among others. But King's Letter was not merely a lofty piece of prose formulated into a concise document.

King attacked the provincial notion that not being from Birmingham made him an outside agitator, reminding the clergy, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
King wrote from the perspective of the suffering Negro:

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; 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; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored" when your first name becomes "Nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when your are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness' then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

King used history to indicate that the clergymen's observations of SCLC's tactics of breaking the law was overly simplistic:

"We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal.' It was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. 'Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's anti-religious laws."

King directly addressed the clergymen's point that the demonstrations were untimely given that Boutwell had defeated Connor:

"One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person that Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hoped that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral that individuals."
On being called an extremist King did not shy away from the characterization. He responded directly to the charge using pathos, ethos, and logic to turn the definition of extremist on its head using an inverted order of history to make his point.

King wrote:

"But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice: 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.' Was not Martin Luther an extremist: 'Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.' And John Bunyan: 'I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.' And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.' And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...' So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime -- the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."

King had transformed the local criticism of eight clergymen into a national response for the movement. His "Letter From Birmingham Jail" is probably the most important document written during the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968). Not even the depravity of being confined to Bull Connor's jail cell could derail this work -- though it did not hurt that King's isolation allowed him to center his thoughts. Like the Apostle Paul, King had produced this stellar document while incarcerated. He was inspired by the 428 words emanating from those whom King may have wrongly assumed understood the movement's plight. And if these eight clergy could not understand, it could stand to reason that America did not understand. The "Letter From Birmingham Jail" responds to its collective critics, and inspires its supporters, in philosophical, theological, political, and moral tones that the gradualism previously experienced in Albany Georgia, what many moderate-liberal forces were now advocating in Birmingham was simply unacceptable.

Jones may not have initially understood the impact of King's Letter; his primary focus, as an attorney, lay elsewhere. But Walker fully understood the magnitude. Walker reportedly stayed up nights dictating and deciphering King's penmanship from the scraps of paper, and the newspapers that King used to write in the margins as he formulated his thoughts.

The impact of King's Letter initially was felt far more internally than it was experienced externally. The Birmingham effort was not riding on an apex of momentum at the time King wrote the Letter. Walker's enthusiastic embrace of the Letter was not shared as he attempted to place it in various publications. It was far too long for most so-called mainstream publications, the Negro press did not publicize it, and only a few theological journals showed any interest. But King's time in jail had not been in vain. Nine days after his arrest he was released on bail. The enthusiasm King created by writing his Letter had not reached masses, as Birmingham on the ground had not changed much in the nine days he sat behind bars. But the enthusiasm King's Letter created internally would soon be experienced externally by a most unlikely source.