Timeless Teachings: Martin Luther King Jr. | Letter from Birmingham Jail

I know some of you are thinking this was a long time coming. I’ve made 8 posts since I started the “Timeless Teachings” series and you’d think a giant like Martin Luther King Jr would’ve been had his shine. To be completely honest with you, I try to stay away from most of Dr. King’s early work.

Now let me be very clear… Dr. King was an incredible leader, and freedom fighter when it came to black and brown people’s rights all across the country and world. That cannot be denied or overlooked in any manner.

The reason why I try to stay away from Dr. King’s early work is a complicated one. Since I’m keeping it 100 I have to admit I have mixed feelings about Dr. King’s main philosophy of nonviolence.

I’m not saying Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence was wrong, or that it didn’t work. There is no doubt that without Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence, a lot of white folks would’ve never publically seen the terrorism black folks faced in the south. Historians widely agree that public support for the voting rights act of ’65 would’ve never happened had it not been for the national coverage of the police state’s reactions to nonviolent demonstrations that happen throughout the south. Untitled presentation

Personally speaking, I agree with the majority of historians. There is no doubt that the nonviolent philosophy exposed the race problem we’ve always had here in America in ways that weren’t imaginable. However, the issue I have with the nonviolence philosophy is that exposing the suffering of black & brown people on a national level does nothing if the nation doesn’t deem your life worthy of much in the first place.

Stokely Carmichael said it best in my opinion when he said, “Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

Deep down I think Dr. King knew this, but because of his faith in humanity, he stayed true to his followers and his philosophy. Nonetheless, Dr. King is still one of the most recognized leaders in human rights history here in this country.

Unfortunately, like most of our history, the image of Dr. King has been completely whitewashed. So much so, people often times mistake him to be a passivist, moderate. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Which leads us to this post… I recently reread Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail in 1963, and let me tell you, this ain’t the MLK you think you know. Of course, I’ll link to the full letter so you can read it on your own time. Below I’ve pulled a few of my favorite quotes that still ring true today.MLK Jr.jpg

Letter from Birmingham Jail

August 1963

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.

“I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing Thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights.

I guess 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, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; 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 cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “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” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Martin Luther King, Jr. In Montgomery, Alabama
Martin Luther King Jr. | Born: January 15, 1929 – Assassinated: April 4, 1968, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Memphis

 

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