Reclaiming Justice: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail


On April 3, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, Fred Shuttlesworth led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launch of the Birmingham campaign, a nonviolent effort to dismantle discrimination laws in one of the south’s most persistent vestiges of jim crow. Partnering with Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, SCLC engaged in way of marches, sit-ins,and other acts of civil disobedience to bring various forms of racial segregation to the forefront of ordinary citizens as well local political, business, and faith leaders.

Seven days into the campaign, Circuit Judge William A. Jenkins of the Tenth Circuit issued a temporary injunction against the campaign:

“It is therefore ordered, adjudged and decreed by the Court that, upon the complainant entering into a good and sufficient bond conditioned as provided by law, in the sum of Twenty five Hundred Dollars ($2500.00), same to be approved by the Register of this Court that the Register issue a peremptory or temporary writ of injunction that the respondents and the others identified in said Bill of Complaint, their agents, members, employees, servants, followers, attorneys, successors and all other persons in active concert or participation with the respondents and all persons having notice of said order from continuing any act hereinabove designated particularly: engaging in, sponsoring, inciting or encouraging mass street parades or mass processions or like demonstrations without a permit, trespass on private property after being warned to leave the premises by the owner or person in possession of said private property, congregating on the street or public places into mobs, and unlawfully picketing business establishments or public buildings in the City of Birmingham, Jefferson County, State of Alabama or performing acts calculated to cause breaches of the peace in the City of Birmingham, Jefferson County, in the State of Alabama or from conspiring to engage in unlawful street parades, unlawful processions, unlawful demonstrations, unlawful boycotts, unlawful trespasses, and unlawful picketing or other like unlawful conduct or from violating the ordinances of the City of Birmingham and the Statutes of the State of Alabama or from doing any acts designed to consummate conspiracies to engage in said unlawful acts of parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing or other unlawful acts, or from engaging in acts and conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches in violation of the wishes and desires of said churches.”

Campaign leadership responded publicly with its intent to disobey Judge Jenkins’ injunction. On April 12th, Good Friday, the campaign was abruptly interrupted with a display of police force and the eventually arrest of Rev. King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and other participants. From a dingy jail cell, Rev. King read from a smuggled newspaper, an ecumenical statement by eight local members of the clergy that highly criticized the campaign and its leadership. In A Call for Unity, the group noted:

“We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”

The response by local clergy threatened the moral legitimacy of the campaign, attacked black clergy thus heightening tensions within the Christian community, and sought to demoralize citizens that has given of themselves to to fight for justice. To maintain morale and demonstrate the campaign commitment to justice, Rev. King authored a piece, Why We Can’t Wait, that appeared in the local newspaper. In it, Rev. King wrote:

“The words ‘bad timing’ came to be ghosts haunting our every move in Birmingham. Yet people who used this argument were ignorant of the background of our planning…they did not realize that it was ridiculous to speak of timing when the clock of history showed that the Negro had already suffered one hundred years of delay.”

And on April 16, 1963, followed with what has come to be known as The Letter from The Birmingham Jail, an discourse on justice and an appeal to local clergy and the community at-large to embrace nonviolent resistance as a moral response to unjust laws.

 

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