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A letter to us all

Paul Andersen

Most Aspen Institute seminars look to a famous letter as a moral compass. The letter, widely known as “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” was written by Martin Luther King in April 1963. Last week an obituary for the Rev. Earl Stallings marked the death of one of the recipients of King’s landmark epistle. The letter answered Stallings and seven other white clergymen in Birmingham who had published a cautionary note about King when the South was exploding in racial conflicts. The clergy admonished King to stifle his civil rights marches and demonstrations, to leave racial injustices to local communities, to patiently await the lawful edicts of the courts in civil rights matters, and to “observe the principles of law and order and common sense” through nonconfrontation. King’s umbrage boiled over at the complacency he recognized in the white, southern clergy. Held in jail for an act of civil disobedience following a peaceful demonstration, King began writing his enduring manifesto. His letter was begun on the margins of the newspaper in which King had read the white clergy’s statement. It was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a writing pad King’s attorneys provided him. Exhibiting unbridled passion, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” contains one of King’s most profoundly universal declarations: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” King went on to defend his Handy-styled protests: “The purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Advised by the clergy to patiently await a social, cultural and political shift toward racial equality, King stridently refused: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair.” When urged to abide by the law, King questioned the legitimacy of the law and those who carried it out: “A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Finally, King denounced the moral apathy of the white moderate: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” King’s letter is well worth reading, not only as a beacon that shone during a dark age from a man of wisdom, conviction, and idealism, but as a light by which to guide ourselves and our nation as current events reflect darkly on America’s often dubious influence in world events. In a recent article in Time Magazine, those who marched shoulder to shoulder with King 40 years ago were asked how the world would be different had the assassin’s bullet not ended King’s life on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968. The Rev. Jesse Jackson: “He would be challenging the war in Iraq… He would protest vehemently that we’ve gone from lying about the war to spying on people protesting the war… He would be declaring that there should be a job and income for every American, a floor beneath which no American would fall.” John Lewis, a black Democratic Congressman from Georgia: “He would be much more committed to the struggle for peace throughout the world and to using the huge amount of resources that we have to help people build and not tear down, to be reconciled and not divided.” Paul Andersen thinks King’s letter should be enshrined alongside the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His column appears on Mondays.


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