Why We Can’t Wait!
On This Day: April 16th, 1963
This week marks the 56th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Facts & Information:
April 12, 1963 King along with approximately fifty others were arrested on Good Friday in Birmingham.
M. L. King decided to ignore a recently passed ordinance that prohibited public gathering without an official permit.
This would be King’s 13th arrest.
King did not want to be quickly bailed out, but chose to stay longer to draw attention to the situation.
On April 12, a Birmingham newspaper was smuggled into King, in which was written a critical letter against King’s actions, written by eight local Christian and Jewish religious leaders. They thought that King should not interfere with issues that were Alabama’s issues.
In his letter, King argued that he could not sit “idly by in Atlanta” because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“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. 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 inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
The thrust of M.L. King’s argument was that we as blacks in America can no longer wait. It is time to take action. Many did not agree with King.
The “Letter” was a response to criticism which Martin Luther King received from other clergymen about his actions.
Martin Luther King: “My Dear Fellow Clergymen. I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely . . . . . . ”
King’s response was basically ignored until — on May 19, 1963, the Sunday edition of the New York Post Magazine published various excerpts of his letter.
The decision by the New York Post to publish some excerpts — along with the persuasive argument and words of King — caused other publications to print the full letter.
In the book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” written by Martin Luther King, the whole letter was included. King also recorded himself reading the letter.
Here are several excerpts from that first letter.
KING: You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.
KING: We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied. We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.”
KING: Perhaps it is easy 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 and even kill your black brothers and sisters;
when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;
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 that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes
when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;
when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;
when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;
when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;
when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;
when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments;
when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”
–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.
I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.””
Key Illustrative Thoughts:
• Why We Can’t Wait
• Why we can still wait
• Two different kingdom waits
• unjust laws
• patience / impatience
• justice – Malachi
• today’s social issues
• abortion / marriage
• racial justice
• “wait” can mean “never”
• civil disobedience
• a moral responsibility to disobey
• respecting others
• justice delay is justice denied
• God-given rights
• unwise & untimely?
Other Information & Links:
Link to pdf of the letter:
Click to access mlk-letter-630416-019.pdf
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