Although the public is most familiar with King’s “I have a Dream” speech, I have always thought that his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a far better and even more passionate explanation of his commitment to civil rights. In the letter King explains why negotiation and postponement of actions are no longer a viable option and argues for direct action in the form of “sit-ins, marches and so forth.”
Here is his argument:You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But 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. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understand and brotherhood.
“Nonviolent gadflies?” Indeed.
Underlying all of King’s philosophy is his concept of the interrelatedness of all communities and states, best phrased in the early paragraphs of his rather long letter: I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . . Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
As I read through these familiar lines, I am aware of how much King's statements have become a part of our heritage and, indeed, a part of the world's heritage. For that, I am grateful.
The "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" can be downloaded here.