When Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his nonviolent campaign against segregation to Bull Connor’s Birmingham, he laid siege to the bastion of Jim Crow. In Birmingham between 1957 and 1962, black churches and homes had been subjected to horrific bombings. In April 1963 King answered the call to bring his campaign to Birmingham. When King landed in jail on Good Friday for violating an injunction prohibiting demonstrations, King took the opportunity to meditate on the counsel of prudence with which Birmingham’s white ministers had greeted his campaign. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was the result.
Reading the “Letter” forty years later is a humbling experience. Perhaps most striking is King’s seething anger over the indignities of segregation:
I guess 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, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; 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 the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country 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 tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and 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 an abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
In addition to King’s witness, King’s prophetic call permeates the “Letter.” Why did King presume to come from Atlanta to Birmingham? King writes:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
King’s prophetic call must have been both a source of strength and of concern. His strength was manifest; he rarely let his concern show. Perfection is not a condition of the prophet’s call, and King was both imperfect and aware of his imperfectons. His unbending strength is all the more remarkable.
It is difficult to comprehend that Martin Luther King, Jr. was only 39 years old at the time of his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, or that the prospect of his death weighed so heavily on his mind. He seems too young to have accomplished so much, or to have maintained his judgment under such trying circumstances. The magnitude of his own trials must have had a deep impact on him.
In the speech he gave in Memphis the day before his assassination, he movingly recalled his first confrontation with death:
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?”
And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood