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Revisiting The Letter from Birmingham Jail

Shortly after Easter, April 16, 1963, 34-year old Martin Luther King Jr posted his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The text of the letter is easily accessible on the web, and is an entire chapter of Martin Luther King's book published in early 1964, "Why We Can't Wait", which described the critical year of 1963 in the Civil Rights movement, as well as giving a sketch of the reasons for the frustration of Negroes on that, the Centennial Year of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Why We Can't Wait is a textbook of the not always tidy realities of organizing, then and now, and it is very well worth acquiring and reading. It is easily and inexpensively available as a used book from on-line book stores such as bookfinder.com and amazon.com. Its observations and lessons learned apply to today as much as to that now-long ago time of 1963.

(Neither the book, nor the web, provides an easily accessible copy of the other statement which led to King's famous letter. That text, at the end of this column, was the published statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen against the organizing effort. I will not take editorial license with what they said, nor will I interpret King's words from his cell in Birmingham. The reader can read and interpret the respective statements for him or herself. What seems clear is that King wrote his letter to acknowledged ministerial leaders, probably all or primarily white, who would likely have been considered as moderates in that time and place; and through them, in effect, sent his message to the world.)

There are many lessons for today's Peace and Justice activists in Letter from the Birmingham Jail, and Why We Can't Wait. The overall lesson is that it isn't easy to go against the prevailing grain. Even those whose cause you advocate are not always with you. One of King's most pivotal decisions was made on his own, going against his own leadership teams advice and counsel. It turned out to have been a risk worth taking; it could have had the opposite effect. A leader never knows for sure....

Of all of the lessons, the one that seems most pertinent for today's activists is this quote from the chapter of Why We Can't Wait entitled "The Days to Come". King: "It was the people who moved their leaders, not the leaders who moved the people. Of course, there were generals, as there must be in every army. But the command post was in the bursting hearts of millions of Negroes. When such a people begin to move, they create their own theories, shape their own destinies, and choose the leaders who share their own philosophy. A leader who understands this kind of mandate knows that he must be sensitive to the anger, the impatience, the frustration, the resolution that have been loosed in his people. Any leader who tries to bottle up these emotions is sure to be blown asunder in the ensuing explosion."

Of course, there are major distinctions between King's environment then, and today's environment, but the principles remain the same: it will be the people who move the leaders, not vice versa. King, by then a leader in the movement for less than ten frustrating years, had already learned that regardless of how righteous or good the cause, ultimately the people had to take ownership of it. Without them, his cause was lost. Elsewhere, he speaks of major political leaders of the time he knew - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson - who dealt with the same key fact: regardless of their personal opinions and beliefs, there was a huge gap and a lot of work between what they might want and what they could achieve.

Recently I had the very good fortune to be given a 1996 book "Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership" by Joseph Jaworski, and it seems to provide a fitting end to this short essay. Barely into this book, in fact in the introduction by Peter Senge, one fineds this quote pairing the philosophies of Robert K. Greenleaf (author of "Servant Leadership") and Joseph Jaworski: "[Jaworski] suggests that the fundamental choice that enables true leadership in all situations (including, but not limited to, hierarchical leadership) is the choice to serve life. He suggests that in a deep sense, my capacity as a leader comes from my choice to allow life to unfold through me. This choice results in a type of leadership that we've known very rarely, or that we associate exclusively with extraordinary individuals like Gandhi or King. In fact, this domain of leadership is available to us all, and may indeed be crucial for our future."

We can all be MLK or Gandhi, Senge suggests, reflecting both Greenleaf and Jaworski. All we need to do is believe that we have that capability, and let that leadership happen.

The task of today's Peace and Justice community is, in my opinion, more than anything else to facilitate empowerment of the majority of the people who are deeply concerned about the direction of this country in all areas that impact their children and grandchildren's future. These people, the people we serve, are our biggest asset, our slumbering giant.

"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."
(From a popular hymn, words and music by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller 1955)

* * * * *

The April 1963 Letter of Eight leaders of religious denominations which led to King's Letter from Birmingham Jail:

"We, the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense," in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.

Since that time there had been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to fact facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial frictions and uncrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we will have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial matters.

However we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.

We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiations of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.

Just as we formerly pointed out that "hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions", we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions might be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.

We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which the demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.

We further strongly urge our own Negro Community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cauise should be pressed in the courts and in negtotations among local leaders and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.


CCJ Carpenter DD LLD Bishop of Alabama
Joseph Durick DD Auxiliary Bishop of Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham
Rabbi Milton L Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham
Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop of Alamaba-West Florida Conference of Methodist Church
Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, Bishop of North Alabama Conf of Methodist Church
George Murray DD LLD, Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
Edward V. Ramage, Moderator, Synod of Alabama Presbyterian Church in the U.S.
Earl Stallings, Pastor, First Baptist Church of Birmingham


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 22, 2007 10:58 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Seeking Peace in Warlike Times.

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