Martin Luther King’s faith in the power of exalted language to awaken the nation would seem obvious. On August 28, 1963, citing the “architects of our republic” in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, King invoked the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Presumably, the act of illuminating the gap between the inalienable rights pledged by those hallowed documents and the shameful alienation suffered by blacks would arouse the conscience of America.
Yet the Constitution and Declaration make only cameo appearances in King’s most sustained treatment of race, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” As we observe the 50th anniversary of that treasure of American letters (dated April 16, 1963), it is instructive to reflect on that strange omission.
The “Letter” was King’s answer from his jail cell to eight white clergymen, among the most prestigious clergy in the state of Alabama, all racial moderates, who had condemned the protests roiling that city of fierce racism and branded King an extremist. The “Letter” was his relentless rebuttal.
Defending the protests and arguing for the fierce urgency of now, he parsed and parried in the most varied ways. Taking his white readers on a tour of the inner recesses of black hurt, he appealed to pathos ("when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'"). He seized on the axiom of Paul Tillich (“sin is separation”) and drew out its subversive implication: “Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation?”
To prove the movement wasn’t reckless, he called on the most reassuring precedents: the Tea Party (the original one), the Hungarian freedom fighters who rose up against Communism, and the Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace. King did everything but summon the values of the Constitution and the Declaration.
At the midpoint of the “Letter,” King largely stopped trying to justify the movement to whites and began to chastise them. There’s really no mystery about his shift from diplomat to prophet.
In truth, he did not think very many whites had the capacity to empathize with black suffering: “Few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.” Nor was he in sway to the illusion that moral exhortation could bring the fullness of democracy in the absence of protest and pressure: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Just days after he got out of the Birmingham jail, King spoke to a black audience at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Right before he heard the chimes of freedom ringing from every mountain top, he anticipated the day when blacks would be able to sing “My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” The corollary was clear: That land did not yet exist. The civil rights movement first had to create it.
Jonathan Rieder, professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author of the recently published Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation; The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism.
His latest book, Gospel of Freedom, is available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
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