“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”—Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Bookended by the Newtown school shootings late last year to the most recent Boston explosions, city-wide imposition of martial law and man hunt, we’ve gone from a winter of discontent, turmoil and strife to a spring of more discontent, turmoil and strife.
No one is happy—not the politicians, who want more power, more control and less oversight; not the citizenry, who want fewer taxes, fewer regulations and greater freedom; and not small business owners, who are being strangled to death by the glut of bureaucratic red-tape being directed their way. Indeed, the only two sectors that might be reasonably content with the status quo, profiting as they do from our misery, are the corporations (especially the security and military industrial complexes) and, by extension, the corporate media.
The times are definitely calling for a change, and a significant change at that, not the cosmetic pandering that passes for political and social rhetoric today. What we are grappling with is how that change will be brought about. Clearly, the political process hasn’t worked, as evidenced by the failure in recent years by both political parties and independent movements to achieve any meaningful change. Clearly, violence is also not the answer, neither on the government’s part nor on the part of disgruntled citizens. Violence only leads to more violence.
So where does this leave us?
It was exactly fifty years ago this year that Martin Luther King Jr. found himself faced with a similar dilemma. His answer to a white populace largely satisfied with the status quo and critical of his call to activism and a black citizenry hungry for equality and immediate change was what he would later refer to as “military nonviolent resistance.”
The seething stew that was racial conflict finally boiled over in 1963, with King at the helm, leading demonstrations and marches in one segregated city after another. Jailed for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama—one of the most racially segregated cities in the country at the time, King found himself on the defensive after eight prominent “liberal” Alabama clergypersons, all white, published an open letter castigating King for inciting civil disturbances through nonviolent resistance and calling on him to let the local and federal courts deal with the question of integration.
Although King rarely bothered to defend himself against his critics, he used his time behind bars to put pen to paper and refute those who not only opted to stand silently on the sidelines and do nothing in the face of injustice and oppression but found fault with any who took a more activist stance in the face of an urgent need. The result was King’s stirring “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” written on April 16, 1963.
King understood that if justice and freedom were to prevail, African-Americans could not afford to be long-suffering. Quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, King wrote, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Action was needed immediately. In his letter, King declared:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country…. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that 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…. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed…. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern…. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”… Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust…. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law…. We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal…. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will…. But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love—“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”… Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist—“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?
The word “extremist” has taken on negative connotations over the years, but it is appropriate here. When talking about the urgent need for transformative change, there can be no room for timidity or lukewarm emotions. What we need is passion and dedication and courage.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. urged Americans to stop standing on the sidelines and become extremists for love and gadflies for change, relying on militant nonviolent resistance as the means for that change, we’re in dire need of that pep talk once again, because injustice is still here. — John W. Whitehead