We remember

  • Published
  • By Steve Larsen
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Historian
When we recall the achievements of the Reverend (Dr.) Martin Luther King, Jr., Americans inevitably think in terms of iconic visual moments: the 1963 March on Washington with King delivering is now legendary "I Have a Dream" speech; his final address from Memphis, Tenn. in 1968 when he told everyone gathered that he had, "...seen the promised land," then grimly, accurately prophesied that like Moses in Israel, "I may not get there with you." He was assassinated the next day. Also brought to mind in the American memory are the numerous civil rights marches coordinated, planned and executed by him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that brought the nation its first truly meaningful civil rights legislation.

Arguably, there was something else that should carry equal wait to these visual images. It is a document. Historians and history students know it well. Many involved to this day in perpetuating and promoting both the legacy and philosophy of Dr. King also know it. For most Americans, this document remains an obscure bit of American history that is nonetheless profound for the message it contains. While incarcerated inside the Birmingham, Ala. City Jail, King received a plaintive letter from a group of white ministers basically asking him in the name of Christian charity to cease his activities which they considered, "unwise and untimely." They wanted King to stop agitating. His response to them was his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

In this letter, he chastised these ministers for protesting his non-violent demonstrations, reminding them that direct action was needed to produce negotiation, which was what the ministers in question claimed they desired. He further implored them to understand, "...that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed," and, "...'Wait' has almost always meant 'never.'" He also pointed out the fallacious concerns of these ministers presented with regard to King and his supporters breaking the law by quickly conceding that yes this happened, but pointing out the "paradoxical" notion that none of them obeyed the Supreme Court edict handed down in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka which ordered the desegregation of schools. He pointed out not just the political, economic and social incorrectness of segregation but also noted that, "...it is morally wrong and sinful." King wished to convey unequivocally, that every one held a moral responsibility to obey just law and a moral responsibility to break unjust laws. He admonished them for incorrectly labeling his protests in Birmingham as extreme by reminding them of the black nationalist movements that were then forming out of frustration with the inaction of government and warned these ministers that success for such groups could lead to violence.

In many respects, King's letter invoked both the moral philosophy of the Christian tradition and the same spirit of liberty rebelling colonists did in the 1770s. He wrote that if these ministers were to consider him an extremist, he would wear that mantel with "satisfaction" and pointed out that Jesus Christ, "...was an extremist for love," the Apostle Paul, "...an extremist for the Christian gospel," all the way through to Thomas Jefferson who's work he quoted, when he reminded the ministers that, "...we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." King's flowing and poetic rhetoric as portrayed with in this letter is a strong reminder for us all today, particularly in an important election year, that every American has a voice. While the "Letter From the Birmingham Jail" addressed specifically the civil rights movement and its protests, it also carried a larger, universal message for all Americans that still should resonate today. To this day, his message is delivered to us that complacency holds no place in a democratic, republican, society that must hear the will of the governed if it is to function and survive. This is a large part of the King legacy; a part that transcends race, creed and color.