LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM April 17, 2013Posted by wmmbb in Nonviolence, Social Environment, US Politics.
It is now fifty years since Martin Luther King wrote his letter from a Birmingham Jail. He writes, “You are quite right to call for negotiation. Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor”.
Jonathan Reider explains so of the background and content of the letter in The New York Times:
. . . [The] view of King as an ardent proponent of American exceptionalism fails to capture a significant part of his thinking, a set of ideas embodied in one of his most famous works, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” What we remember today as a stirring piece about freedom and justice was also a furious reading of American history and an equally indignant attitude toward King’s white contemporaries.
Arrested on April 12, 1963, during an epic struggle to desegregate Birmingham, Ala., King was in jail when he read the statement of eight white moderate clergymen who criticized the demonstrations as “untimely,” branded King “extreme” and chided the protesters for precipitating violence.
King’s letter, written on scraps of paper smuggled out of the jail and first made public on April 16, 1963, began as irate jottings of rebuttal. In its final form, though, the indignation was not evident in every sentence: the opening words, “My dear fellow clergymen,” brimmed with precious gentility.
Later, King offered reasoned justifications for civil disobedience and rarefied nods to the theologians Martin Buber and Paul Tillich. And he evoked universalism with the proclamation, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Yet black anger, not fancy philosophy, was the driving force behind the letter. You don’t have to be a literary critic to sense the cold fury: “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.”
There are aspects of Dr King’s reading that seem inexplicable to an “alien”, any person who has had the singular good fortune to live outside the direct American experience if to be drawn into it in a second hand way by exposure to the constructions of media. Fate could always have been crueler than imagination might be able to give credence.
Jonathan Reider draws attention to Black experience:
. . . King found optimism in his deep faith in black people. At its core, the “Letter” was a proclamation of black self-sufficiency.
King began his paean to black majesty with the line “abused and scorned though we may be,” a reference to the slavery-era spiritual “’Buked and Scorned,” which evokes the slaves’ suffering and their conviction that “Jesus died to set me free.”
It was a touchstone for King, a link to his revered forebears, and one he referenced repeatedly. “Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the mighty words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here.”
. . . In the “Letter,” King immediately sidled from the “we were here” refrain into another of his favorite passages of ancestor worship: “For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation. And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.”
OK, so Martin Luther King is a person of guts and gumption, but I would expect the systematic cruelties of slavery would have broken many, lesser, more vulnerable and weaker people, and where that failed the explicit denial literacy and other forms of expression blocked the discovery and realization of their full human possibility. But that is the nature of systematic violence, which despite the pious claims to the contrary was organized for greed. So too structural violence has to be hidden while it works its magic. Violence can have the same effect when it is, or apparently, self-generated.
Rev. Martin Luther Kings reads his somewhat long letter, which in itself given the circumstances in which it was written, is extraordinary:
Of course, the disquieting thing, given different circumstances and fate, somebody like me, with the same disposition to melanoma rather than osteoporosis, relative to latitude. Group influences are powerful and overt, but I suppose culture is more overt and implicit. We live in the grip of paradigms we have no role in constructing. So maybe Hayek and the neoliberals are on to something when they blame the intellectuals. Equally, there might be cause for praise, including those like the Quakers who keep the quest for peace, even if William Penn, or so it is alleged, had several slaves.
This is a long video, but well worth the listening. He speaks of justice and the means and ends of nonviolence as creative outlet for human dignity.
I commented on Martin Luther King’s evident strength. As Gandhi said nonviolence is not the inanity it can be taken for. Michael Nagler relates in his book, The Search for a Nonviolent Future (p.192):
We tend to know about how the leaders went through the profound inner changes that allowed them access to new faith and courage, simply because of their public exposure. We know that Martin Luther King, for example, was at first unprepared for the level of hatred that arose like an angry sea that threatened to take, and eventually would take, his life. He passed through a profound crisis, his “Petermaritzburg” if you will , that almost broke him. It came to a head on Friday, January 27, 1955, the day after his first jail experience,when a series of hateful and obscene phone calls shook his confidence. At midnight that night, after a particularly ugly and threatening call that left him unable to get back to sleep, his anxiety mounted.
And I got to the point that I could not take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way our of no way.
. . . And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it . . . And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for Truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world”
And whatever that inner voice was, however we explain it, it had the immediate effect of lifting King to a higher lever of functioning.
The “Petermaritzburg” moment refers to when Gandhi in South Africa was thrown off the train, despite the fact that he was dressed as a person who had graduated from the Inns of Court in London with a first class ticket, because he was an Indian. He became at that instance the object of discrimination rather than simply the acute observer of it in the social environment.
(Michael Nagler’s book is well reviewed by David M who distinguishes principle nonviolence from a marshaling of techniques to achieve a specific outcome, but is sceptical about the inherent weakness in the hard real world for “pacificism”. But what then could any of us do if were of the mind and somehow possessed the courage to act? And if we were victims, as any of us might be, how could we turn our victimhood into something that was positive and constructive, not revengeful and destructive?)
- Birmingham celebrates 50 years since Letter from Birmingham Jail (al.com)
- ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ at 50: MLK’s religious fervor remembered (thegrio.com)
- Order, justice and extremism: Martin Luther King, Jr and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” 50 years on (religionfactor.net)
- The Righteous Fury of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (blackchristiannews.com)