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.

This year’s selec­tion is a set of pas­sages from the clos­ing para­graphs of the let­ter. Here, Dr. King is giv­ing thanks for those who have nobly and coura­geous­ly tak­en a stand for jus­tice and nondis­crim­i­na­tion — those who have bro­ken loose from the “par­a­lyz­ing chains of con­for­mi­ty.” He then explains that he has no despair about the future, for the goal of the move­ment he is com­mit­ted to is free­dom… the Amer­i­can goal. Our des­tiny, he writes, is tied up with Amer­i­ca’s destiny.

Is orga­nized reli­gion too inex­tri­ca­bly bound to the sta­tus quo to save our nation and the world? Per­haps I must turn my faith to the inner spir­i­tu­al church, the church with­in the church, as the true ekkle­sia and the hope of the world.

But again I am thank­ful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of orga­nized reli­gion have bro­ken loose from the par­a­lyz­ing chains of con­for­mi­ty and joined us as active part­ners in the strug­gle for free­dom. They have left their secure con­gre­ga­tions and walked the streets of Albany, Geor­gia, with us. They have gone down the high­ways of the South on tor­tu­ous rides for freedom.

Yes, they have gone to jail with us.

Some have been dis­missed from their church­es, have lost the sup­port of their bish­ops and fel­low ministers.

But they have act­ed in the faith that right defeat­ed is stronger than evil tri­umphant. Their wit­ness has been the spir­i­tu­al salt that has pre­served the true mean­ing of the gospel in these trou­bled times.

They have carved a tun­nel of hope through the dark moun­tain of disappointment.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the chal­lenge of this deci­sive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of jus­tice, I have no despair about the future.

I have no fear about the out­come of our strug­gle in Birm­ing­ham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood.

We will reach the goal of free­dom in Birm­ing­ham and all over the nation, because the goal of Amer­i­ca is free­dom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our des­tiny is tied up with Amer­i­ca’s destiny.

The Let­ter from Birm­ing­ham Jail, also known by its alter­nate titles (“Let­ter from Birm­ing­ham City Jail” and “The Negro Is Your Broth­er”) was writ­ten April 16th, 1963, while Dr. King was incar­cer­at­ed in Alaba­ma’s third largest city.

King and oth­er civ­il rights lead­ers had been arrest­ed on April 12th for dis­re­gard­ing an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al pro­hi­bi­tion issued by an Alaba­ma cir­cuit judge on “parad­ing, demon­strat­ing, boy­cotting, tres­pass­ing and picketing.”

The let­ter was a response to an open let­ter authored by eight white cler­gy­man titled “A Call for Uni­ty,” which crit­i­cized King and his methods.

“The let­ter pro­voked King, and he began to write a response to the news­pa­per itself,” the doc­u­men­t’s Wikipedia entry explains. “King writes in Why We Can’t Wait: ‘Begun on the mar­gins of the news­pa­per in which the state­ment appeared while I was in jail, the let­ter was con­tin­ued on scraps of writ­ing paper sup­plied by a friend­ly Black trusty, and con­clud­ed on a pad my attor­neys were even­tu­al­ly per­mit­ted to leave me.’ Wal­ter Reuther, pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers, arranged $160,000 to bail out King and the oth­er jailed protestors.”

We encour­age you today to take some time to read the whole let­ter.

Or, if you’d like, you can watch/listen to a read­ing of it.

Hap­py MLK Day!

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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