It is early on the morning of April 16 as I type these words. Doing so, I am extremely mindful that it was 50 years ago today that Martin Luther King, Jr., began writing the document that he titled “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”
Almost immediately, King’s missive attained the status it enjoys today, as perhaps the seminal essay on nonviolent social protest. Written in response to a plea from eight white clergymen that he abandon his leadership of the “unwise and untimely” round of demonstrations that had begun in the streets of Birmingham on April 3, and opt instead for “honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area.”
The letter from the clergymen had appeared in The Birmingham News on Good Friday — coincidentally, the very day of King’s arrest and incarceration — under the headline, “A Call for Unity.” The response of their fellow minister was respectful but unequivocal. While acknowledging that it was “unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place,” King added that it was “even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor,” King wrote. “It must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Going further, King evoked the “refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar,” and exhorted his readers to “never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” In other words, he implied, the perpetuation of injustice in Birmingham was not just the fault of the segregationists who ran the city. Responsibility for the demonstrations also belonged squarely on the shoulders of “white moderates” of the very type represented by the clergymen who were imploring him to end them.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” declared King. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
The rhetoric King employed in his letter served three purposes. It was a matchlessly eloquent and heartfelt expression of the spiritual underpinnings of the Movement. It was a pronouncement of exigency on behalf of a people, in Birmingham and across the nation, who had waited long enough for acknowledgement of their equality under the law. And it was a carefully calculated political statement.
In the half-century since King penned his immortal words, this last purpose has been too often and too blithely ignored. As the leader of a movement that had stalled in the months before he came to Birmingham, King knew that a victory here was imperative. For at least a year prior to committing to the Birmingham Campaign, he had been repeatedly — and not gently — urged by the Movement’s longtime local leader, Fred Shuttlesworth, that this was the place where the ultimate goal would be lost or won (Shuttlesworth once told me that he said to the famously deliberative King during that time, “Martin, if you don’t get over here, we’re going to end segregation without you.”).
In reading King’s excoriation of white moderates, the tendency has been to read it as a vilification of the white clergymen who signed the “call for unity,” and, by extension, of all white people in Birmingham. King, however, recognized that his audience went far beyond Birmingham — in fact, all the way to the White House and President John F. Kennedy, who was closely monitoring the events in Alabama. By “attacking” his ostensible allies in the white community, King was doing what great leaders do: creating a sense of urgency that pulls people out of their comfort zones and into the fray, compelling those who profess the faith to begin living it.
Which, in a roundabout and perhaps unfortunate way, brings me back to The Birmingham News and something that is sticking in my craw on this auspicious day. I don’t often do this, but before I sat down to write this morning, I made the mistake of looking at Al.com. There I saw a story about the anniversary of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which it was proudly pointed out that King’s “first thoughts” in response to the white clergymen’s call for unity were “scribbled in the margins of The Birmingham News.”
Of course, this is factual, as far as it goes. What is left out, however, is that King began drafting his essay in the margins of the newspaper because it was the only piece of paper immediately available to him, having been smuggled into his cell by a visitor so that King might see the clergymen’s letter printed there — and that the News was the natural place for such a letter to have appeared, since as a matter of policy it had never deigned to print anything positive about Martin Luther King or the Civil Rights Movement.
Indeed, only a couple of week’s after King began his scribbling in the margins of the News — he soon moved on to toilet paper and whatever other scraps he could lay his hands on — publisher Clarence B. Hanson appropriated the front page of the paper to reproduce the text of a telegram he had seen fit to send President Kennedy. As the demonstrations — which now included the specter of schoolchildren being attacked by police dogs and fire hoses — continued, Hanson presented the President what purported to be a dispatch from a battlefront where, “Negroes are gathered, are excited by speeches, and then are sent boldly into the streets where they openly taunt police and provoke not only the white community but the law itself.”
King’s letter also had included a tribute to “some of our white brothers in the South [who] have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.” Among those was Ralph McGill, the publisher of The Atlanta Constitution. It is to Birmingham’s lasting shame that there was no similarly bold source of journalistic leadership in our city, a point made clear by an emerging business leader of the time who spoke to me for a book I was researching several years ago. Today, reflecting on King’s letter and the conditions that made it necessary — strategically and tactically, spiritually and politically — it seems fitting to repeat those words.
“That’s where the leadership on integration should have come from,” Richard “Dick” Pizitz, whose family founded the longtime signature Birmingham department store chain, said of the News. “Atlanta had an enlightened newspaper, and it’s easy to see the difference that made in how things were handled there. In Atlanta, the media actually led the political and business sectors. That didn’t happen in Birmingham.”