MLK at a Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.
Rowland Scherman - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (Taken August 28th, 1963)

Today is Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Day, and like 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, Dr. King makes the case for the val­ue of direct action (cit­ing the exam­ples of sit-ins, march­es, and so forth) to his audi­ence, explain­ing that non­vi­o­lent direct action sets the stage for nego­ti­a­tion. His­to­ry, he observed, has shown that civ­il rights advances are nev­er achieved except through pressure.

Many decades have elapsed since these words were writ­ten. Sad­ly, racism and injus­tice remain a painful real­i­ty for many peo­ple in this country.

Nev­er­the­less, the strug­gle for greater free­dom and equal­i­ty continues.

Here’s Dr. King. (Note that typos are con­tained in the orig­i­nal manuscript.)

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, march­es and so forth? Isn’t nego­ti­a­tion a bet­ter path?” You are quite right in call­ing for nego­ti­a­tion. Indeed, this is the very pur­pose of direct action.

Non­vi­o­lent direct action seeks to cre­ate such a cri­sis and fos­ter such a ten­sion that a com­mu­ni­ty which has con­stant­ly refused to nego­ti­ate is forced to con­front the issue.

It seeks so to dra­ma­tize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

My cit­ing the cre­ation of ten­sion as part of the work of the non­vi­o­lent resister may sound rather shocking.

But I must con­fess that I am not afraid of the word “ten­sion.”

I have earnest­ly opposed vio­lent ten­sion, but there is a type of con­struc­tive, non­vi­o­lent ten­sion which is nec­es­sary for growth.

Just as Socrates felt that it was nec­es­sary to cre­ate a ten­sion in the mind so that indi­vid­u­als could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfet­tered realm of cre­ative analy­sis and objec­tive appraisal, so must we see the need for non­vi­o­lent gad­flies to cre­ate the kind of ten­sion in soci­ety that will help men rise from the dark depths of prej­u­dice and racism to the majes­tic heights of under­stand­ing and brotherhood.

The pur­pose of our direct action pro­gram is to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion so cri­sis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

I there­fore con­cur with you in your call for negotiation.

Too long has our beloved South­land been bogged down in a trag­ic effort to live in mono­logue rather than dialogue.

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 than Mr. Con­nor, they are both seg­re­ga­tion­ists, ded­i­cat­ed to main­te­nance of the sta­tus quo. I have hope 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 than individuals.

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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