Written while King was jailed for an unpermitted march against segregation laws, his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was composed on newspaper scraps and toilet paper, in a moment when the civil rights movement seemed to verge on collapse.
Written to refute white moderate criticism of his methods, today the letter is celebrated as King’s famous treatise on the "necessary tension" of nonviolent protest. Today we commemorate its 56th anniversary.
For those unfamiliar, the full text can be found here and audio here. (The letter is a passionate denouncement of complacency, so it might be most appropriate to read or listen to it in its entirety.)
As with much of King's legacy, public consciousness of the letter often fixates on its most optimistic notes. The letter touches on familiar issues of importance to our own humanist and activist communities. Most famously, it calls on us to live up to our responsibility as compassionate citizens of a vast community:
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
FBB activists may find it interesting how King outlines his community-level strategy. His involvement in Birmingham began at the request of an affiliate organization to his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and employed a four-step approach: fact analysis, negotiation, self-purification, and finally— only once deemed necessary— direct action.
From this point in the letter, King illustrates the importance of employing direct action, not to create social tension, but to expose it where it already exists in the community:
“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. […] The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
King's letter also decries the complacency of members of his own faith— and by extension, all compassionate people at large:
“If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.
“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.“
From a secular humanist standpoint, these passages can read at first glance as familiar critiques of organized religion. They are more. King’s writing calls on people of all philosophies to question the usefulness of their affiliations. As humanists, these writings might prompt questions like:
- Do I practice a "social club" variety of humanism?
- Where am I complacent with the status-quo when it is unjust?
- Do I indulge only in non-controversial work, and by doing so do I sanction injustice by not confronting it?
Many of us feel uneasy with the thought of being labeled an “extremist.” Dr. King admitted to feeling this discomfort at first, only to eventually gain satisfaction from the label. Invoking other past "extremists"— Lincoln, Martin Luther, Christ, and Paul the Apostle— King recognized that people of conscience need not fear being branded as radicals.
"So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
When faced with injustice, what kind of extremists will we as humanists be?