Modern Lessons from the Letter from Birmingham Jail

A reflection from Dean Prabu David.

In April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and sent to jail in Birmingham, Alabama for organizing a nonviolent protest. Eight well-meaning clergymen, sympathetic to the struggles of the civil rights movement, published an editorial urging restraint. The clergymen discouraged protest and believed that the solution ought to be forged through courts and negotiations.

King responded to the clergymen with a letter that is every bit as relevant today as it was 57 years ago. Though much has changed in five decades, racism remains. The recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others before them, who for centuries have lost their lives because of the color of their skin, are a grim reminder.

King’s letter kindles the conscience, exhorting us to peaceful action. He challenges well-meaning citizens who advocate patience to look carefully at the pattern of racial injustice, oppression, pain and hurt that have gone unattended. As we search for answers and contemplate action, we can draw strength and wisdom from these quotes from the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Prepare for constructive tension
"But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth."

Change is forged through tension. Our discomfort is a small price to pay for centuries of the hurt and the lived experiences of racism.

Grapple with the cause
"You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes."

Before we focus on misguided violence perpetrated by a few, it is important to examine the cause. The suffocating pressure of bias and prejudice has caused immeasurable harm to people of color.

We are interconnected
"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."

Injustice is an assault on our decency, even if we are not affected by it. Our network of mutuality demands collective action.

Good people cannot be silent
"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

The most pernicious danger is not the manifest actions of those with bad intentions. It is the apathy and inaction of well-meaning citizens. We have a responsibility to be active agents of change.

Be a thermostat, not a thermometer
For too long, the academy has nurtured students and faculty to become excellent thermometers. As a community, we observe, measure and report on racism with great accuracy and fidelity. But few of us are thermostats, ready to turn up the heat to accelerate social change. We have a choice to make – remain a thermometer or become a thermostat. King challenges us to become thermostats.

We stand at a watershed moment that requires transformational change. We must support our African American friends and colleagues. We must act and demand action to address the inequities of our social and legal justice systems.