By Nii B. Andrews
For over three decades MLK’s seminal prose in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has been for me, a fount of solace, strength and inspiration in an often difficult world.
The letter was written while he was in extremely harsh solitary confinement and without any research materials available. The arrest was the 13th of his career.
MLK crafted the 7000 word letter in response to eight Christian and Jewish leaders who had in their own published letter described MLK as, “too known”; an agitator and a persistent source of disharmony.
MLK wrote with absolute clarity against;
“ (the) use of moral means to preserve immoral ends”
“ (the) shallow understanding from people of goodwill (that) is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will”
“ (the) myth concerning time – the ‘tragic misconception of time’, to assume that it’s passage will inevitably cure all ills”
As we prepare to celebrate MLK Day on Monday, January 15, let us meditate on four short extracts from that monumental letter.
We should be able to answer, each for herself, whether we are doing or have done enough to further MLK’s noble ideals.
“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:
collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation;
and direct action.”
“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension.
We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.
We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.
Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified.
We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime- the crime of extremism.
Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment.
The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.
Perhaps…….. the world (is) in dire need of creative extremists.
“My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking.
But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.”
I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. ”
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has been translated into at least 40 languages; it is also present in over 50 anthologies.
Have you read it?
It is an exquisite example of writing as an art form – accurate Grammar, unassailable Logic and resounding Rhetoric – all neatly welded and wielded adroitly as a powerful exegesis in defence of liberty and truth.
Of course, it was not until 2013, 50 years after it was written, that the intended recipients crafted a response!
It took them that long.
The Protestant clergy in their response called on people of goodwill around the world to intervene in matters of racial, social and economic justice.
Let us get ready for MLK Day……and beyond.