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 open­ing para­graphs of the let­ter. Here, Dr. King is explain­ing how he end­ed up in Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma, and address­ing the crit­i­cism that he is an “out­sider.” This sec­tion has two very mem­o­rable lines that read­ers may rec­og­nize: “I am in Birm­ing­ham because injus­tice is here” and “Like Paul, I must con­stant­ly respond to the Mace­don­ian call for aid.” Read on to appre­ci­ate the con­text for those lines.

Sel­dom do I pause to answer crit­i­cism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the crit­i­cisms that cross my desk, my sec­re­taries would have lit­tle time for any­thing oth­er than such cor­re­spon­dence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for con­struc­tive work. But since I feel that you are men of gen­uine good will and that your crit­i­cisms are sin­cere­ly set forth, I want to try to answer your state­ment in what I hope will be patient and rea­son­able terms.

I think I should indi­cate why I am here in Birm­ing­ham, since you have been influ­enced by the view which argues against “out­siders com­ing in.” I have the hon­or of serv­ing as pres­i­dent of the South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, an orga­ni­za­tion oper­at­ing in every south­ern state, with head­quar­ters in Atlanta, Georgia.

We have some eighty five affil­i­at­ed orga­ni­za­tions across the South, and one of them is the Alaba­ma Chris­t­ian Move­ment for Human Rights. Fre­quent­ly we share staff, edu­ca­tion­al and finan­cial resources with our affil­i­ates. Sev­er­al months ago the affil­i­ate here in Birm­ing­ham asked us to be on call to engage in a non­vi­o­lent direct action pro­gram if such were deemed nec­es­sary. We read­i­ly con­sent­ed, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with sev­er­al mem­bers of my staff, am here because I was invit­ed here. I am here because I have orga­ni­za­tion­al ties here.

But more basi­cal­ly, I am in Birm­ing­ham because injus­tice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth cen­tu­ry B.C. left their vil­lages and car­ried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the bound­aries of their home towns, and just as the Apos­tle Paul left his vil­lage of Tar­sus and car­ried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far cor­ners of the Gre­co Roman world, so am I com­pelled to car­ry the gospel of free­dom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must con­stant­ly respond to the Mace­don­ian call for aid.

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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