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Martin Luther King Jr. - His way with words

January 15, 2014
By Melinda Swenson

Each year at Colorado State University we look at ways that Martin Luther King Jr. inspired and still inspires us. What follows is a remarkable example -- King's letter from the Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested by the Birmingham police.King writes from jail cell

Good Friday, April 12, 1963, Birmingham, Alabama.

If you were white and content to be living in the most segregated city in the U.S., you were most likely enjoying the signs of spring.

Bees hummed in pink dogwood trees along downtown streets. White church spires stood against a clean, blue sky.

If you were black, you lived in a different universe.

You stayed close to home. Laundromats, stores, restaurants, libraries, parks – virtually all public and commercial facilities – were off-limits to you. Even your own church was not a safe place to be. Many of Birmingham's black churches, as well as homes, had been bombed.

A demonstration of courage in a violent city

Despite these realities, on the afternoon of April 12, a group of fifty people gathered in downtown Birmingham to begin a nonviolent demonstration. The rally was in defiance of an April 10 injunction against protests in the city.

While America watched, the Birmingham Police moved in and arrested all fifty protesters, aged 15 to 81 – including Martin Luther King Jr.

While in the Birmingham City Jail, a newspaper was delivered to King. Inside was a statement by eight Alabama clergymen criticizing King's involvement in the rally as “unwise and untimely.”

Basically, the clergymen said that King “should have waited.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was 34 years old when he wrote the letter from the Birmingham City Jail.King's response

King began writing a response to the letter in the margins of the newspaper. Later, a jail trustee gave him a small pad of paper. And still later, a lawyer sent to represent him gave him a legal pad.

King wrote 6,923 words.

Whenever King entered the debate on civil rights, he proved to be brilliant. His reasoning stirred the intellect and his imagery swayed the heart.

Excerpts from the letter

“For years now I have heard the word, 'Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never...’

“Perhaps it is easy for them who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, ‘Wait...’

"But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;

"When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;

"When you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;

"When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;

"When you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’;

"When you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you…

"Then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

The letter's impact

King’s April 16 letter from jail, along with the April 12 protest, were part of a larger campaign to bring attention to racial segregation in the South. These and other factors were important catalysts in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

*The Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship is presented each year to an outstanding Colorado State graduate student. It provides full financial support for one academic year. The recipient must have achieved an excellent record in formal course work and have shown accomplishment and promise in the type of scholarship, research, or artistry that is characteristic of his or her discipline. Award recipients must also have actively contributed to the enhancement of individuals from ethnically diverse populations and must have served as a role model.

Contact: Melinda Swenson