Martin Luther King’s letter from prison, April 16, 1963 Nov08


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Martin Luther King’s letter from prison, April 16, 1963

Martin Luther King was imprisoned because the peaceful direct action in which he was involved and which he asserted was necessary was deemed illegal by law in the state of Alabama. His letter is addressed to his “fellow clergymen” because he believes their criticism of him is “sincerely set forth” though he admits he doesn’t usually respond to such criticism since to do so would take up all his time such is the volume of opposition to his activities.

The outsider myth

His argument in his letter is that he is not an outsider, not least because there are 85 affiliated organisations in the South with which he has legitimate business. (This charge of being an outsider is very cleverly taken up again later in the letter.) He was invited to the South because of these “organisational ties” which I think is a challenge to the church leaders who were likely threatened by the sheer force of his personality and the “inescapable network of mutuality” he identifies in Alabama and elsewhere. Are these detractors worried that they are those who “stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevances and sanctimonious trivialities”?

Toward the end of the letter King expertly comes around again to the notion of the outsider in reference to “the early Christians [who, when they] entered a town [discommoded] the people in power” and suffered accusations of being “disturbers of the peace and outside agitators.”

Underlying conditions and effects

He is in Alabama and he is in prison because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere” and “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This style of his of echoing (you see it repeatedly in the letter – no pun intended!) comes from the Bible which is often written with the same technique, and little surprise since King was “the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers.”

The clergymen who traduce him do so with what they (he concedes this) may well consider righteous motivations but they ought to consider the “conditions that brought about the demonstrations” rather than being shaken out of their complacency by the consequences of the unrest. King is concerned with “underlying causes” of the negroes’ complaints since there is an “ugly record of brutality” and example upon example of “grossly unjust treatment” of blacks in the South.

Peaceful direct action

Why is direct action not simply preferable but necessary? Its purpose is “to foster such a tension” in society that will force the issue to the top of the agenda. For too long, King argues, there’s been a complacency that is wholly understandable in the white communities but despicable amongst blacks which amounts to “a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”

Can there be, by the way, any better summation of the Trump Administration?

Direct action is never well-timed

Because “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily” and because “groups tend to be more immoral than individuals,” freedom must be sought after by the oppressed. It’s all very well for those who are not suffering to ask King and his followers to be level-headed, to be reasonable, to require that social change happen in a more timely fashion: “I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was well-timed in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” He warns that “the word ‘wait’ has always meant ‘never’ and “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” While the complacent or the privileged or the hateful go about their business, the negro is “smothering in an airtight cage of poverty” and King has to explain to his daughter why “she can’t to the public amusement park” and watch the “ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little middle sky [which] distort her personality [causing] an unconscious bitterness toward white people.

Living at tiptoe stance

The unconscious bias attributed to white people, a notion that has gained strong currency in recent months due largely to the Black Lives Matter movement, is here shown to exist also in black children and there are reasons for it on both sides. For the blacks it is pretty obvious; for whites it is likely due to what King calls the “myth concerning time,” that others who don’t suffer or refuse to admit that they do can set a timetable for when the black man can have his constitutional freedoms and rights. All the while, the blacks “live constantly at tiptoe stance,” an image that reminds me of a scene in Twelve Years a Slave: if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean.

Just and unjust laws

Just and unjust laws can be differentiated easily enough and obeying the one while abjuring the latter though both are legally-binding is not hypocrisy, according to King. This is because a just law “is a man-made code that squares with the moral law of the lord God; an unjust law is a code is out of harmony with the moral law.” The latter “degrades human personality.” In another tangental reference to recent times, King writes that “all segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” An unjust law is a code that a numerical, a power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself: this is difference made legal. [A] just laws is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and it is willing to follow itself: this is sameness made legal.


King’s repeated reference to the “personality” revives its centrality to any social or religious crusade, any psychological, political or artistic concern. How we feel about ourselves and what we believe we can offer the world is central to anything we think and do: “[segregation] gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority, [substituting] an ‘I/It’ relationship for an ‘I/Thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.”

Obeying the law isn’t necessarily moral; disobeying it is a risk

Socrates, according to King, is one of the fathers of academic freedom because he “practised civil disobedience.” He reminds people that in Nazi Germany, Hitler acted legally because he codified his hatred for the Jews and liberalism as well as everything else he detested. Obeying the law, in other words, doesn’t automatically confer moral legitimacy on anyone. The Christian’s commitment is to suffering at least in the face of an oppressive system of laws: “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with willingness to accept the penalty; [anyone who does so] is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” Neither is there anything original about this logic: there is Biblical precedence for it in the Book of Daniel where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into a furnace for not bowing in suppliance to Nebuchadnezzar’s image. The injunction in his letter, therefore, is an uncomfortable one since it asks Christians to live as Christians which, it turns out, is a damned sight harder than Americans’ typical existences would suggest.

One flaw of his letter perhaps is that it only addresses Christians, or at least followers of a God, though this may well not be a flaw as much as a political and social necessity: nothing changes without active resistance.

The moderate whites

Moderate white political opinion was more damaging, in King’s view, than hateful, racist ideology. White moderates wanted the “negro to wait for a more convenient season” to demand his rights; “shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill-will.” This is analogous to the oft-quoted Edmund Burke aphorism that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” King writes in his letter about the “do-nothingism of the complacent” which is just as bad as the “hatred and despair of the black nationalists.” Were it not for the insistence on peaceful direct action either nothing at all would happen or “many [places] would be flowing with blood.”

Rhetorical devices of repetition and metaphors

In several places King uses a phrase repeatedly in quick succession which is a staple of so much rhetoric. The phrase “now is the time” is thus employed in his letter to exhort his audience to resist the urge to wait: “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy […] Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Elsewhere, in reference to the argument that direct action incites violence (Trump again, remember?) he answers the charge with three instances of the phrase “Isn’t this like:” “Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock. Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?”

The metaphor of quicksand is particularly effective since it resonates with ideas concerning stagnation and disease that appear elsewhere in the letter and it’s a perfect counterpoint to the “solid rock of human dignity.” Another astonishingly good metaphor is this: [In the past] the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas of principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat to transform the morays of society.” A final example (there are a great many) for now is the “dark dungeons of complacency” and the “bright hills of creative protest.”

What kind of extremists will we be?

Extremism is rehabilitated in King’s letter. Were not Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Jesus extremists? The question isn’t whether he himself is one or not; the question is what sort of one is he? On the hill of Calvary there were three extremists crucified: “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.” Certain leaders of the Southern church, King avows, don’t see the need for extremists in love because they have been “more cautious than courageous and remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.” They have adjured their followers to obey the desegregation law of the Supreme Court, 1954, because it is the law, not because it is “morally right,” not because “the negro is [their] brother.”

Sorry for such a long letter

King apologises for writing such a long letter but what else is he going to produce “alone in a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers.” This is devastating for his opponents and his enemies alike since they’d have been better served by allowing him to remain free but of course to have done that would have been to admit their laws aren’t moral.

And what a stark contrast we can draw between Donald Trump who couldn’t cite a single instance from the Bible that inspired him either as a man or a leader, who held up a copy of that book which he clearly neither consulted or read and said nothing in response to the demonstrations, the mostly peaceful direct action in response to George Floyd’s murder, and the late Martin Luther King who, as all Christians are committed to doing, put his life on the line for his beliefs. What else can one identify in him other than the dark dungeon of complacency?