Today is Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Day, and we do every year in hon­or of Dr. King’s mem­o­ry, I’m post­ing an excerpt from his Let­ter From Birm­ing­ham Jail.

In these pas­sages, he is explain­ing why he has reject­ed calls to wait on advanc­ing civ­il rights. King makes the point that peo­ple who wish to expand free­dom must be bold (and will­ing to vio­late unjust laws!), because timid­i­ty does not bring about last­ing, mean­ing­ful change. If free­dom is not being expand­ed, it contracts.

(Note that typos are con­tained in the orig­i­nal manuscript.)

We know through painful expe­ri­ence that free­dom is nev­er vol­un­tar­i­ly giv­en by the oppres­sor; it must be demand­ed by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action cam­paign that was “well timed” in the view 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 pierc­ing famil­iar­i­ty. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Nev­er.” We must come to see, with one of our dis­tin­guished jurists, that “jus­tice too long delayed is jus­tice denied.”

We have wait­ed for more than 340 years for our con­sti­tu­tion­al and God giv­en rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are mov­ing with jet­like speed toward gain­ing polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence, but we still creep at horse and bug­gy pace toward gain­ing a cup of cof­fee at a lunch counter.

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 coun­ty 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 you 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.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer will­ing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

Take a few min­utes today to read the whole thing.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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