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Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Yesterday someone linked to Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, and I realized that I had never read it in its entirety.

Vardibidian wrote about it a few years ago; I knew about the letter before then, but I don't think I knew much about what it was about. And even after reading V's comments, I didn't actually read the full letter.

So now that I've read it, I'm going to quote extensively from it below, especially from parts that seem to me to be relevant to other struggles as well, and parts that are good reminders to me. But I recommend reading the whole letter if you haven't. Among other things, I'm leaving out all the parts about religion (which I think are in some ways the core of the letter, even though they speak to me personally less than some of the other parts) and all the parts about civil disobedience and refusing to obey unjust laws.

Here are some of my favorite pieces (some of which are famous and oft-quoted, some not):

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. 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.

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.

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.”

I must confess that over the past 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 his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.

… the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. … We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

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