Thursday, September 24, 2009

Essay: "Letter from Birmingham Jaoil." Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963.

One-minute review: In a letter that I think is as eloquent as anything I have ever read, King responds to white clergymen who criticize him for engaging in nonviolent peaceful protest that results in violence and who urge black people to wait patiently while white society adjusts to accept them. King quotes Aquinas, St. Augustine and Martin Buber. He uses scathing logic. He uses plain statement of the treatment of blacks by whites. His message is, Why are not you, the white religious Christians, joining us in the march to justice n behalf of your black brothers to fulfill the Constitutional guarantees for its citizens? Unforgettable.


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

“Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”

“..when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are)….”

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over….”

“There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ ”

“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself.”

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

“In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?”

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

“…forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

“The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice….”

Best American Essays of the Century. Editors: Oates and Atwan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

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