A powerful missive from a jail cell

Few authors have matched Martin Luther King's response to the Birmingham, Alabama, church leaders.

MLK’s jail cell in Birmingham

MLK’s jail cell in Birmingham

Mike Selby

“Unwise and ill-timed.”

Those were the last two words he imagined he would hear; but there they were, in print, describing no one’s actions but his own.

It was 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. first read those words. He was in a tiny jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, after being arrested for leading a protest march down the city’s main street. Criticism was the last thing King wanted.

At the time, King’s continued involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was seen as a failure. Newspapers around the country described him as “a leader who was past his prime.” His call to non-violence and civil disobedience in Albany the previous year hadn’t accomplished anything, except leaving those supported who him “depressed and in despair.” Even his own organization began to question King’s usefulness.

Added to this was the sheer terror of being imprisoned. Behind his brave countenance he “recoiled from the claustrophobia and the fear.” The Birmingham jail was “a dismal place with concrete walls and a cold metal bed without any mattress.” As he began to prepare to spend his first night there, someone slipped him an article clipped from one of the city’s daily newspapers. It was here his actions were called “unwise and ill-timed.”

In an article titled ‘A Call for Unity,’ eight white church leaders (Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant) had condemned King. They viewed him as yet another outside agitator who only added to Birmingham’s climate of fear and mistrust. They also felt King’s non-violence rhetoric was insincere, as his presence always caused violence, which King would then exploit for his own publicity. “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.”

Finding a worn-out pencil on the floor of his cell, King began to write a response to the article on the small margins of the article itself. When that quickly ran out, he continued his response on scraps of the jail’s toilet paper. As the days went by, King had his lawyer smuggle in some actually writing paper. His lawyer felt King had either become mentally unstable, or was writing “a eulogy for a doomed movement.”

For the next eight days, King wrote a direct response to the religious leaders, who above all else, should have known better.

“I guess it is easy,” King’s response began, “for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … and when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park … only then will you understand why we find it difficult to ‘Wait.'”

Excerpts from what King titled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” appeared in the ‘New York Post’ 50 years ago this week, after being rejected by the ‘New York Times.’ It appeared in complete book form the following year.

It has become a literary touchstone not only for the Civil Rights Movement, but also for Christian organizations, American historians, and global peace movements. Its eloquence has made it a favourite with English teachers — it has been anthologized in over 400 school publications.

Oscar Wilde, Thomas Malory, Richard Lovelace, O. Henry and Henry David Thoreau have all written books from jail. Yet few authors have matched King’s missive against the Birmingham church leaders, who dared to “set a timetable for another man’s freedom.”

(It should be noted none of the church leaders ever responded to King’s letter.)

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library