11:25 am
Tue April 16, 2013

'Letter From Birmingham Jail' 50 Years Later



Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter from Birmingham jail. Dr. King penned this letter as a response to white clergymen who called his campaign of non-violent protests, quote, "unwise and untimely," unquote, and had urged him not to intervene in Alabama's segregationist policies.

Here is a clip of Dr. King reading part of the letter that he wrote in response.


MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I can not sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

MARTIN: The full text of that letter was published in a number of news outlets, including the New York Post Sunday magazine and The Atlantic Monthly. It was controversial at the time, but it's now recognized as an iconic statement of the principles underlying the civil rights movement.

We thought this was a good time to take a closer look at that letter, so we've called upon, once again, Clayborne Carson. He is the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. He's a professor of history at Stanford University and he's with us once again.

Thank you so much for joining us once again.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: There are a number of lines from this letter that I think people instantly recognize. I mean they're like Shakespeare in the sense that people have heard them. They don't necessarily remember where they heard them, but they've heard them. One of those lines, of course, is: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Are there other statements from the letter that you think have really become part of our shared history?

CARSON: Oh, there are so many. I think that what has happened is that the letter has become part of the national consciousness - just like the "I Have a Dream," speech, which he gave several months later - and the notion of the interconnectedness of humanity, the way in which we are all responsible for correcting injustices wherever they occur in the world because they ultimately affect us.

MARTIN: Is there another line from the letter that you particularly love?

CARSON: Well, he kind of paraphrases Frederick Douglass when he talks about justice is never given voluntarily by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed. You know, that idea is something that I think we often forget today, that a person in a position of privilege is not likely to give something voluntarily. The whole purpose of nonviolence is to create a situation of unrest that upsets the status quo and requires those in power to respond to the demands of those who are oppressed.

I was reminded of that during the Occupy protests, that sometimes you need to upset those in power. You need to demand justice, that injustice is not necessarily recognized by everyone, especially if it's familiar, especially if it's become a habit or a custom. And that's what happened in the segregated South, is that most people who were white Southerners did not recognize the injustice of the system until people began to demand change.

MARTIN: And, as we mentioned, King wrote this in response to eight white clergymen who'd criticized his presence in Birmingham, remember that, at this point, he was based in Atlanta, and that he had been invited to Birmingham. And he was responding to their public criticisms of him. Could you talk a little bit more about who they were, and what fault they found with his being in Birmingham?

CARSON: Yes. Well, these were people who considered themselves Southern moderates. They expressed that they were sympathetic toward the goals of the movement, but they simply challenged King about bringing disorder and protest to Birmingham.

Martin Luther King was disappointed that faith leaders - who should be his natural allies in this struggle for social justice - were standing on the sidelines doing nothing. And I think that that motivated him in his criticism, and perhaps led him to develop an argument that I think, later on, many of these faith leaders would recognize was the right argument. And he said that, you know, the greatest enemies are not the people who are - know that they are doing wrong, but the ones who stand by and let wrong go on without standing up to it.

MARTIN: We mentioned that it was published in a number of news outlets, and it is quite lengthy, which is, you know - maybe it's more of a reflection of our own times, that such a long letter might not find a home in today's, you know, media in its entirety.

But do you - can you tell us, what was the reaction at the time? I'm particularly interested in the reaction of the people to whom it was directly sent, and also, more broadly, what the reaction was.

CARSON: At the time, most of the people did not recognize the importance of it, similar to the "I Have a Dream" speech. I saw the newspaper accounts the day after, and no one really recognized that a great speech had been delivered. But I think that it was only over time that these eight white Birmingham ministers recognized that they were on the wrong side of history, and it became a source of embarrassment.

King understood, in the long view, that he was on the right side of history, and that, ultimately, that letter would have an impact, and it did. It took a while. I was at the march on Washington, and I didn't know, even in that audience, that I was listening to a great speech that would be remembered 50 years later. And I'm sure that some of the people who first saw his letter - which was written on yellow pads, and it was just kind of all pieced together from these notes that Martin Luther King made - I don't know if any of them really recognized that this would be a letter that would be in textbooks and books of literature 50 years later. People at the time did not understand the central importance of what was going on in Birmingham.

King was in the middle of a campaign that, if he had failed in Birmingham, there wouldn't have been the "I Have a Dream" speech, because he wouldn't have been invited to give the concluding speech if he had just failed in a major campaign in Birmingham. There wouldn't have been the Man of the Year acknowledgement in Time magazine. There wouldn't have been the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

So I think that, when we go back, we have to understand that Birmingham was a crucial campaign for King. He had to win in Birmingham, and the letter was motivated by his understanding of how decisive that campaign was.

MARTIN: He was a very prolific writer and speaker, you know, obviously, but most people who write a lot have varying opinions about their own work. Sometimes they're critical of things that they've written and think, oh, I really could have done a better job with that. Do you happen to know how he felt about this letter? Was he proud of it?

CARSON: Yes. I think he was. I think he understood that, under the duress of being in jail, he actually wrote the best and most cogent statement that he would ever write in his life. He didn't have access to his library. He didn't have access to the input of the people around him, but in that jail cell, he had the power of concentration and memory that allowed him to express more clearly and more cogently than he would ever express again the principles of nonviolent civil resistance.

So I think that, in that way, he kind of welcomed the opportunity that being in jail gave him and the opportunity that his white critics gave him to understand how to argue persuasively for the forces of justice that he represented in the movement.

MARTIN: Clayborne Carson is the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. He's also a professor of history at Stanford University, and he was kind enough to join us from the studios at that campus.

Professor Carson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CARSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.