Tag Archives: Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King and His Ideals in 2014

This year’s tribute to Dr. King has to do with this country’s economic well-being.  When a person talks about his own well-being it is often in the context of how he is feeling physically, mentally and emotionally.  When disease, injury or trauma occurs, then the saying generally is “I’m not feeling well”.  The same kind of self-assessment can and should be made for the country as a whole.  Indeed, our current president seems to know this well and will often make observations of the country’s poor economic health as a way to advance his political agenda.  His carefully prepared diagnosis is generally: too much inequality and not enough shared sacrifice.  And he will give this assessment the same way a doctor today would give his patient a diagnosis: mechanically and patronizingly.  But for something that is akin to cancer in its potential to disrupt and destroy, that is no way to motivate a populace to change its way, to say nothing of whether he even believes change is needed at all.

For years now, the country has been gripped by an increasing sense of economic insecurity.  One that says to a person if I don’t do this now, I will never be able to do it at all.  The thing that must be done, of course, is “make money”.  This mentality I think we can all agree has led to a lower quality of life than that which existed thirty, forty years ago.  Because, for all the additional material goods and technology that we now have that we didn’t have before, they do nothing to compensate for the time that one has to spend to make that extra dollar that he cannot spend with his family, his friends his community, and even himself (in the sense of self-reflection and self-improvement).

It is the kind of insecurity that has led to the creation of thousands of meaningless yet high-paying jobs where the only skill that is required is the skill to bullshit your way through meeting after meeting, and client after client, while doing everything you possibly can to protect your own turf.  It is meant to employ the un-employable, and in the process, give them a sense of self-worth, while doing nothing to teach them a skill which might make a difference when the government is on the brink of collapse or the next nuclear bomb hits.  Make no mistake, this is not a swipe at the so-called financial industry whose dispensability and frivolousness are already well-known to the general public.  It is directed to some of the most revered institutions, like higher education and public service, that have at one time made this country — even with its many moral failings — a symbol of hope for many around the world.

This sense of insecurity is not entirely irrational.  The growing gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and unhealthy has been thoroughly documented.  It isn’t news that the country is in ill-health and likely to get worse in the coming years.  And it is entirely predictable that people today have an almost messianic attitude about money and its healing properties: “get as much of it as you can now because soon there won’t be any left.  And if we can’t take care of ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”.

The problem, of course, is that this just makes the problem worse.  The “me first” mentality further entrenches the rich at the expense of the poor.  That is because the ones who are most able to make it on their own are the ones who already have the means to do so.  What the current climate of insecurity has done is turn what were once blinders which the rich wore vis a vis the poor to full-blown hazmat suits.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, or so the saying goes.  In cities, this can be seen in “gentrification” which allow the rich to enjoy all the benefits of the city without the costs that necessarily come with living in close proximity to others.  In the suburbs, this can be seen in the proliferation of gated communities and private police forces.  The common theme of all this change is the rejection of the idea that we all provide for each other as well as for ourselves, rather than simply ourselves, an idea that led many to embrace Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

Few if any public figures mention these things.  To do so would make them a prime target for the “socialist” label and doom their careers.  But the ideals at issue are ones that need to be revived if the country is to heal itself from the economic and moral malaise with which it has been inflicted.  Dr. King recognized that, and history has proven his work valuable even if its effects have been limited (not through any fault of his own).  And we must as well, for the alternative is at once unfathomable but all too familiar.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013

As has become a tradition of sorts since I started this blog, I write to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which also happens to coincide with the second albeit unofficial inauguration of Barak Obama as President of the United States.  What significance lies in  such a series of coincidences I leave for you to ponder.  For present purposes, I post here in its entirely a piece entitled “The Way It Is” by Ralph Ellison, which originally appeared in New Masses on October 20, 1942. It describes Ellison’s encounter and interview with Mrs. Jackson, a Harlem resident, in which she reveals to him her feelings about living in the United States as a black person. Ellison was 28 years old when he wrote this.


The Way It Is

by Ralph Ellison

The boy looked at me through the cracked door and stood staring with his large eyes until his mother came and invited me in.  It was an average Harlem apartment, cool now with the shift in the fall weather.  The room was clear and furnished with the old-fashioned furniture found so often up our way: two old upholstered chairs and a divan upon a faded blue and red rug.  It was painfully clean, and the furniture crowded the narrow room.

“Sit right there, sir,” the woman said.  “It’s where Wilbur use to sit before he went to camp; it’s pretty comfortable.”

I watched her ease herself tiredly upon the divan, the light from the large red lamp reflected upon her face from the top of a mirrored side table.

She must have been fifty, her hair slightly graying.  The portrait of a young solider smiled back from the top of a radio cabinet beside her.

She pointed.  “That’s my boy Wilbur right there,” she said proudly.  “He’s a sergeant.”

“Wilbur’s got a medal for shooting so good,” the boy said.

“You just be quiet and go eat your supper,” she said.  “All you can think about is guns and shooting.”  She spoke with the harsh tenderness so often used by Negro mothers.

The boy went, reluctantly opening the door.  The oder of peas and rice and pork chops drifted through.

“Who was it, Tommy?” shrilled a voice on the other side.

“You two be quiet in there and eat your supper now,” Mrs. Jackson called.  “them two just keeps my hands full.  They just get into something all the time.  I was coming up the street the other day and like to got the fright of my life.  There was Tommy hanging on the back of a streetcar!  But didn’t I tan his bottom!  I bet he won’t even look at a streetcar for a long, long time.  It ain’t really that he’s a bad child; it’s just that he tries to do what he sees the other boys do.  I wanted to send both him and his sister away to camp for the summer, but things was so tight this year that I couldn’t do it.  Raising kids in Harlem nowadays is more than a notion.”

As is true so often in Negro American life, Mrs. Jackson, the mother, is the head of her family.  Her husband had died several years ago; the smaller children were babies.  She had kept going by doing domestic work, and had kept the family together with the help of the older boy.

There is quiet courage about Mrs. Jackson, and yet now and then the clenching and unclenching of her work-hardened fingers betray an anxiety that does not register in her face.  I offer to wait until after she has eaten, but she says no, that she is too tired right now and would rather talk than eat.

“You finding the writing business any better since the way?” she asked.

“I’m afraid no,” I said.

“Is that so?  Well, I don’t know nothing about the writing business.  I just know that don’t many colored go in for it.  But I guess like everything else, some folks is doing good while others ain’t.  The other day I was over on 126th Street and saw them dispossessing a lawyer!  Yes, sir, it was like back in the thirties.  Things piled all over the sidewalk, the Negroes a-hanging out of the windows, and the poor man rushing around trying to get his stuff off the streets before it got dark and everything.”

I remembered the incident myself, having passed through the street that afternoon.  Files, chest of drawers, bedsteads, tables and barrels had been piled along the sidewalk with pink, blue and white mattresses and bundles of table linen and bedclothing piled on top.  And the crowd had been as she described: some indignant, some curious, and all talking in subdued tones so as not to offend the evicted family.  Law books had been piled upon the sidewalk near where a black and white kitten — and these are no writer’s details — played games with itself in the coils of an upright bedspring.  I told her I had seen the incident.

“Lord,” she said.  “And did you see all those law books he had?  Looks like to me that anybody with all those books of law oughtn’t to never get dispossessed.

“I was dispossessed myself, back in thirty-seven, when we were all out of work.  And they threatened me once since Wilbur’s been in the Army.  But I stood up for my rights, and when the government sent the check we pulled through.  Anybody’s liable to get dispossessed though.”  She said it defensively.

“Just how do you find it otherwise?” I asked.

“Things is mighty tight, son . . . You’ll have to excuse me for calling you ‘son,’ because I suspect you must be just about Wilbur’s age.”  She sat back abruptly.  “How come you not in the Army?” she asked.

“I’ve a wife and dependents,” I said.

“I see.”  She pondered.  “Wilbur would have got married too, but he was helping me with the kids.”

“That’s the way it goes,” I said.

“Things is tight,” she said again.  “With food so high and everything.  I sometimes don’t know what’s going to happen.  Then, too, with Wilbur in the Army we naturally misses the money he use to bring in.”  She regarded me shrewdly.  “So you want to know about how we’re doing?  Don’t you live in Harlem?”

“Oh, yes, but I want to know what you think about it.”

“So’s you can write it up?”

“Some of it, sure, but I won’t use your name.”

“Oh, I don’t care ’bout that.  I want them to know how I feel.”

She became silent.  Then, “You didn’t tell me where you live, you know, ” she said cagily.  I had to laugh and she laughed too.

“I live up near Amsterdam Avenue,” I said.

“You telling me the truth?”


“And is your place a nice one?”

“Just average.  You know how they go,” I said.

“I bet you live up there on Sugar Hill.”

“Not me,” I said.

“And you’re sure you’re not one of these investigators?”

“Of course not.”

“I bet you are too.” She smiled.

I shook my head and she laughed.

“They always starting something new,” she said. “You can’t keep up with them.”

But now she seemed reassured and settled down to talk, her hands clasped loosely in her lap against the checkered design of her dress.

“Well, we’re carrying on somehow. I’m still working and I manage to keep the young uns in school, and I pays the rent too.  I guess maybe it would be a little better if the government would send the checks on time . . .”

She paused and pointed across the room to the picture of a young woman.  “And it would be even better if Mary, that’s my oldest after Wilbur — if she could get some of that defense training so she could get a job what pays decent money.  But it don’t look like she’s going to get anything.  She was out to the Western Electric plant in Kearney, New Jersey, the other day and they give her some kind of test, but that was the end of that.”

“Did she pass the test?” I asked.

“Sure she passed.  But they just put her name down on a card and told her they would keep her in mind.  They always do that.  They ask her a lot of questions; then they want to know if she ever had any experience in running machines, and when she says she ain’t, they just take down her name.  Now where is a colored girl going to get any experience in running all these kinds of machines they never even seen before?”

When I could not answer she threw up her hands.

“Well, there you have it, they got you any which way you turn.  A few gets jobs, but most don’t.”

“Things are much better outside of New York,” I said.

“So I hear,” she said. “Guess if I was younger I’d take the kids and move to Jersey or up to Connecticut, where I hear there’s some jobs for colored.  Or even down South.  Only I keep hearing about the trouble they’re having down there, and I don’t want the kids to grow up down there nohow.  Had enough of that when I was a kid . . .”

“Have any of your friends gotten work through the F.E.P.C.?” [editor’s note: F.E.P.C. stands for Fair Employment Practices Commission; created by FDR, it sought to prevent companies with government contracts from discriminating on the basis of race of religion]

She thought for a moment.

“No, son.  It seems to me that that committee is doing something everywhere but here in New York.  Maybe that’s why it’s so bad for us — and you know it’s bad ’cause you’re colored yourself.”

As I heard the clatter of dishes coming from the kitchen, her face suddenly assumed an outraged expression.

“Now you take my sister’s boy, William. God bless his poor soul. William sent to the trade schools and learned all about machines. He got so he could take any kind of machine apart and fix it and put it together again. He was machine-crazy! But he was a smart boy and a good boy. He got good marks in school too. But when he went to get a job in one of those factories where they make war machines of some kind, they wouldn’t take him ’cause he was colored — and they told him so!”

She paused for breath, a red flush dyeing her skin. The tinted portrait of a brown mother holding a brown, shiny-haired baby posed madonna-like from a calendar above her head.

“Well, when they wouldn’t take him some of the folks over to the church told him to take his case to the F.E.P.C. , and he did. But they had so many cases and it took so long that William got discouraged and joined up in the Merchant Marine. That poor boy was just so disgusted that he said that he would have enlisted in the Army, only that his mamma’s got two little ones like I have. So he went out on that boat ’cause it paid good money and a good bonus. It was real good money and he helped his mamma a head. But it didn’t last long before one of those submarines sunk the boat.”

Her eyes strayed to the window, where a line of potted plants crowded the sill, a profusion of green things slowly becoming silhouettes in the fading light. Snake plants, English ivy, and others, a potato plan in a glass jar, its vines twining around a cross of wood and its thousand thread-fine roots pushing hungrily against the wall of glass. A single red bloom pushed above the rest, and in one corner a corn plant threatened to touch the ceiling from the floor with its blade-like leaves.

The light was fading and her voice had slipped into the intense detachment of recent grief. “It was just about four months yesterday,” she said. “He was such a fine boy. Everybody liked William.”

She shook her head silently, her fingers gripped her folded arms as she swallowed tensely.

“It hurts to think about it,” she said, getting up and snapping on another light, revealing a child’s airplane model beneath the table. “Well, the folks from his union is being very nice to my sister, the whites as well as the colored. And you know,” she added, leaning toward me, “it really makes you feel a little better when they come round — the white ones, I mean — and really tries to help. Like some of these ole relief investigators who come in wanting to run your life for you, but really like they interested in you. Something like colored folks, in a way. We used to get after William for being with white folks so much, but these sure have shown themselves to be real friends.”

She stared at me as though it was a fact which she deeply feared to accept.

“Some of them is going to try and see that my sister gets some sort of defense work. But what I’m trying to tell you is that it’s a sin and a shame that a fine boy like William had to go fooling round on them ships when ever since he was a little ‘ole boy he’d been crazy about machines.”

“But don’t you think that the Merchant Marine is helping to win the war?” I said. “It takes brave men to go out there, and they’ve done a lot.”

“Sure they have,” she said. “Sure they have. But I’m not talking about that. Anybody could do what they had him doing on that boat. Anybody can wait table who’s got sense enough to keep his fingernails clean! Waiting tables, when he could make things on a machine!

“You see that radio there? Well, William made that radio. It ain’t no store set, no, sir, even though it looks like one. William made it for the kids. Made everything but the cabinet and you can hear way down to Cuba and Mexico with it. And to think of that boy! Oh, it makes me so mad I don’t know what to do! He ought to be here right now helping his mamma and lil brother and sister. But what can you do? You educated, son, you one of our educated Negroes that’s been to college and everything. Now you tell me, what can we do?” She paused. “I’m a colored woman, and colored women can take it. I can hit the chillies to the subway every morning and stand in the white folks’ kitchen all day long, but so much is happening in the world that I don’t know which way to turn. First it’s my sister’s boy, and then they sends my own boy down to Fort Bragg. I tells you I’m even afraid to open Wilbur’s letters that the government sends sometimes about his insurance or something like that ’cause I’m afraid it might be a message that Wilbur’s been beaten up or killed by some of those white folks down there. Then I gets so mad I don’t know what to do. I use to pray, but praying don’t do no good. And too, like the union folks was telling us when we was so broken up about William, we got to fight the big Hitler over yonder even with all the little Hitlers over here. I wish they’d burry up and send Wilbur on out of the country ’cause then maybe my mind would know some ease. Lord!” she sighed. “If it wasn’t so serious I’d break down and laugh at my ownself.”

She smiled now and the tension eased from her face and she leaned back against the divan and laughed. Then she became serious again.

“But son, you really can’t laugh about it. Not honestly laugh like you can about some things. It reminds me of that crazy man that’s always running up and down the streets up here. You know, the one who’s always hollering at the cars and making out like he’s throwing bombs?”

“Of course, I’ve seen him often,” I said.

“Sure you have. Well, I use to laugh at that poor man when he’d start acting the fool — you know how it is, you feel sorry for him but you can’t help but laugh. They say he got that way in the last war. Well, I can understand him better now. ‘Course I ain’t had no bombs bursting in my ears like he had. But yet and still, with things pulling me thisaway and that away, I sometimes feel that I’m going to go screaming up and down the streets like that poor fellow does.”

“He’s shell-shocked,” I said. “Sometimes I’ve seen him talking and acting just as normal as anyone.”

“Is that so?” she said. “I always though it was funny he never got hit by a car. I’ve seen them almost hit him, but he goes right back. One day I heard a man say, ‘Lord, if that crazy fellow really had some bombs he’d get rid of every car in Harlem!’ “

We laughed and I prepared to go.

“Sorry you found me so gloomy today, son. But you know, things have a way of just piling up these days and I just had to talk about them. Anyway, you asked for me to tell you what I thought.”

She walked with me to the door. Streetlamps glowed on the avenue, lighting the early dark. The after-school cries of children drifted dimly in from the sidewalk.

She shivered close beside me. “It’s getting chilly already,” she said. “I’m wondering what’s going to happen this winter about the oil and coal situation. The ole holes we have to live in can get mighty cold. Now can’t they though?”

I agreed.

“A friend of mine that moved up on Amsterdam Avenue about a month ago wanted to know why I don’t move out of Harlem. So I told her it wouldn’t do no good to move ’cause anywhere they let us go gets to be Harlem right on. I done moved round too much not to know that. Oh yes!”

She shook her head knowingly.

“Harlem’s like that old song says:

It’s so high you can’t get over it

So low, you can’t get under it,

And so wide, you can’t get round it . . .

“That’s the way it really is,” she said. “Well, good-bye, son.”

And as I went down the dimmed-out street the verse completed itself in my mind, You must come through by the living gate . . .

So there you have Mrs. Jackson. And that’s the way “it really is” for her and many like her who are searching for that gate of freedom. In the very texture of their lives there is confusion, war-made confusion, and the problem is to get around, over, under and through this confusion. They do not ask for a lighter share of necessary war sacrifices than other Americans have to hear. But they do ask for equal reasons to believe that their sacrifices are worthwhile, and they do want to be rid of the heavy resentment and bitterness which has been theirs for long before the war.

Forced in normal times to live at standards much lower than those the war has brought to the United States generally, they find it emotionally difficult to give their attention to the war. The struggle for existence constitutes a war in itself. The Mrs. Jackson of Harlem offers one of the best arguments for the stabilization of prices and the freezing of rents. Twenty-five percent of those still on relief come from our give percent of New York’s population. Mrs. Jackson finds it increasingly difficult to feed her children. She must pay six cents more on the dollar for food than do the mothers of similar-income sections elsewhere in the city. With the prospect of a heatless winter, Harlem, with its poor housing and high tuberculosis death rate, will know an increase of hardship.

It is an old story. Touch any phase of urban living in our democracy , and its worst aspects are to be found in Harlem. Our housing is the poorest, and our rents the highest. Our people are the sickest and Harlem Hospital the most overcrowded and understaffed. Our unemployment is the greatest, and our cost of food the most exorbitant. Our crime the most understandable and easily corrected, but the policemen sent among us the most brutal. Our desire to rid the world of fascism the most burning, and the obstacles placed in our way the most frustrating. Our need to see the war as a struggle between democracy and fascism the most intense, and our temptation to interpret it as a “color” war the most compelling. Our need to believe in the age of the “common man” the most hope-inspiring, and our reasons to doubt that it will include us the most disheartening. (This is no Whitmanesque catalogue of democratic exultations, while more than anything else we wish that it could be.”) And that’s the way it is.

Many of Mrs. Jackson’s neighbors are joining in the fight to freeze rents and for the broadening of the F.E.C.P. for Negroes and all other Americans. Their very lives demand that they back the President’s stabilization program. That they must be victorious is one of the necessities upon which our democratic freedom rests. The Mrs. Jacksons cannot make the sacrifices necessary to participate in a total war if the conditions under which they live, the very ground on which they must fight, continues its offensive against them. Nor is this something to be solved by propaganda. Morale grows out of realities, not out of words alone. Only concrete action will be effective, lest irritation and confusion turn into exasperation, and exasperation change to disgust and finally into anti-war sentiment (and there is such a danger). Mrs. Jackson’s reality must be democratized so that she may clarify her thinking and her emotions. And that’s the way it really is.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2012

This year I offer a few thoughts of my own in commemeration of Dr. King and his legacy.  Today, we often mention “progress” when the topic of racial equality is raised — this being the initial focus of Dr. King’s efforts as an advocate for the downtrodden and marginalized, and later, with the same forceful advocacy that he brought to the cause of racial equality, the great injustice that was America’s war against the Vietnamese war and the economic poverty that was, and still is, very much a staple of life in America despite willfully false portrayals by our news and popular media to the contrary.  Certainly, true progress has been achieved since the days of institutionalized slavery, Jim Crow and Emmet Till.  Colored-only buses and restrooms are a thing of the past.  As are lynchings, at least in their most public and severe form.  If one were keeping score, one might even think of the glass as being half full without the sense of guilt and pity that more often than not lead to shortsightedness and undesirable outcomes.  Still one need not look too hard to see that much of what Dr. King fought against — the inequality, the senseless violence, the hate and cynicism — remains an intractable force in our society.  A few blocks from where Dr. King grew up here in Atlanta sits homes and storefronts long abandoned by those who succumbed to such a force.  Had Dr. King been able to see his old neighborhood and its surrounding communities in their present state, it is safe to say that “progress” is not the word that would have come to mind.

None of this, however, should be news.  The “pursuit of happiness” that is a founding principle of this country necessarily implies a culture of self-absorption and inequality, where one’s key to his or her own “happiness” often comes at the expense of another’s.  And blacks, in particular, have long been, and continue to be, the expendable ones in this equation.  And the election of our first “black” president has done nothing to change that.

There is time yet to reverse this trend.  And it takes not the writing or oratory of  a great thinker or scholar to do so.  Rather, the solution has been in front of our noses since time immemorial and has been posited in various forms to the general public.  Joe Black, a pitcher for the legendary 1950’s Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, did just in a university talk that was documented by Roger Kahn in his book, The Boys of Summer:

During a recent Honors Day Program at Virginia Union, a black university in Richmond, Black spoke about the responsibilities as well as the rewards of black power: “Our efforts have to be more positive than shouting, ‘Sock it to him, Soul Brother,’ or, ‘We are victims of a racist society,’ or, ‘Honkey!’ I’m in favor of black history because it makes whites realize that American blacks have done more than make cotton king. Rut I’m opposed to all-black dorms, and to violence. If the black student wants to use a loaded gun to make a point, what can we expect of uneducated blacks? By now some of you may be saying I’m a Tom, a window-dressing Negro. But I learned two things early.  A minority cannot defeat a majority in physical combat and you’ve got to let some things roll off your back.  Because my name is Joe Black, whites called me ‘Old Black Joe.’  After a few years of scuffling, I still hadn’t silenced all of them and throwing all those punches had made me a weary young man.  Call me ‘Old Black Joe’ today and you agitate nobody except yourself.”

He makes one point to everyone. It is bigotry to exalt the so-called special language of the blacks. “What is our language?” he asked. ” ‘Foteen’ or ‘fourteen.’ ‘Pohleeze’ for ‘police.’ ‘Raht back’ for ‘right hack.’ ‘We is going.’ To me any man, white or black, who says whites must learn our language is insulting.  What he’s saying is that every other ethnic group can migrate to America and master English, but we, who were born here and whose families have all lived here for more than a century, don’t have the ability to speak proper English.  Wear a dashiki or an African hairdo, but in the name of common sense, learn the English language. It is your own.”

At lunch, [Joe] handed me a sheet of paper.  “This is part of my philosophy,” he said.  “And by the way, notice the use of English vocabulary.”

I read:


black hook,

black eye,

black friday,

black hand,

black heart,


black magic.


black market,

black maria,

black mark,

little black sambo,

white lies.

Black is Beutiful.

“If that’s what you make it, Joe,” I said.

“Well,” he said.  “You got the point.”


11-11-11: Veterans Day and Armistice Day

In commemoration of those who have served their countries with honor and bravery, I post here a video clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the Vietnam War.  I do this not to denigrate the sacrifices of those to whom this day is dedicated but rather in hope that those who have gone a different route do not take for granted and are not blinded to the circumstances which have perpetuated the scenarios and theaters that have become the breeding ground for such sacrifices.

In Memory of Dr. King – Part II of II

As promised, I post here the second and remaining part of James Baldwin’s essay, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” (Esquire magazine, July, 1960) in commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday tomorrow:


Harlem circa 1987(?)

The projects in Harlem are hated.  They are hated almost as much as policemen, and this is saying a great deal.  And they are hated for the same reason: both reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world, no matter how many liberal speeches are made, no matter how many lofty editorials are written, no matter how many civil-rights commissions are set up.

The projects are hideous, of course, there being a law, apparently respected throughout the world, that popular housing shall be as cheerless as a prison.  They are lumped all over Harlem, colorless, bleak, high, and revolting.  The wide windows look out on Harlem’s invincible and indescribable squalor: the Park Avenue railroad tracks, around which, about forty year ago, the present dark community began; the unrehabilitated houses, bowed down, it would seem, under the great weight of frustration and bitterness they contain the dark, the ominous schoolhouses from which the child may emerge maimed, blinded, hooked, or enraged for life; and the churches, churches, blocks upon block of churches, niched in the walls like cannon in the walls of a fortress.  Even if the administration of the projects were not so insanely humiliating (for example: one must report raises in salary to the management, which will then eat up the profit by raising one’s rent; the management has the right to know who is staying in your apartment; the management can ask you to leave, at their discretion), the projects could still be hated because they are an insult to the meanest intelligence.

Harlem got its first private project, Riverton — which is now, naturally, a slum — about twelve years ago because at that time Negroes were not allowed to live in Stuyvesant Town.  Harlem watched Riverton go up, therefore, in the more violent bitterness of spirit, and hated it long before the builders arrived.  They began hating it at about the time people began moving out of their condemned houses to make room for this additional proof of how thoroughly the white world despised them.  And they had scarcely moved in, naturally, before they began smashing windows, defacing walls, urinating in the elevators, and fornicating in the playgrounds.  Liberals, both white and black, were appalled at the spectacle.  I was appalled by the liberal innocence — or cynicism, which comes out in practice as much the same thing.  Other people were delighted to be able to point to proof positive that nothing could be done to better the lot of the colored people.  They were, and are, right in one respect: that nothing can be done as long as they are treated like colored people.  The people in Harlem know they are living there because white people do not think they are good enough to live anywhere else.  No amount of “improvement” can sweeten this fact.  Whatever money is now being earmarked to improve this, or any other ghetto, might as well be burnt.  A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence.

Similarly, the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive.  None of Commissioner Kennedy’s policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling.  Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children.  They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corraled up here, in his place.  The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt.  Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality.  I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once.  The businessmen and racketeers also have a story.  And so do the prostitutes.  (And this is not, perhaps, the place to discuss Harlem’s very complex attitude towards black policemen, nor the reasons, according to Harlem, that they are nearly all downtown.)

It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, goodnatured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves.  He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed.  He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated — which of us has? — and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it.  There is no way for him not to know it: there are few things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people.  He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in two’s and three’s.  And he is not the only one who knows why he is always in company: the people who are watching him know why, too.  Any street meeting,  sacred or secular, which he and his colleagues uneasily cover has as its explicit or implicit burden the cruelty and injustice of the white domination.  And these days, of course, in terms increasingly vivid and jubilant, it speaks of the end of that domination.  The white policeman, standing on a Harlem street corner, finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world.  He is not prepared for it — naturally, nobody is — and, what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him.  Even if he is gifted with the merest mustard grain of imagination, something must seep in.  He cannot avoid observing that some of the children, in spite of their color, remind him of children he has known and loved, perhaps even of his own children.  He knows that he certainly does not want his children living this way.  He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature.  He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased.  One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up.  Before the dust settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened.  What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words.  People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the Bible find this statement utterly impenetrable.  The idea seems to threaten profound, barely conscious assumptions.  A kind of panic paralyzes their features, as though they found themselves trapped on the edge of a steep place.  I once tried to describe to a very well-known American intellectual the conditions among Negroes in the South.  My recital disturbed him and made him indignant; and he asked me in perfect innocence, “Why don’t all the Negroes in the South move North?”  I tried to explain what has happened, unfailingly, whenever a significant body of Negroes move North.  They do not escape jim-crow: they merely encounter another, not-less-deadly variety.  They do not move to Chicago, they move to the South Side; they do not move to New York, they move to Harlem.  The pressure within the ghetto causes the ghetto walls to expand, and this expansion is always violent.  White people hold the line as long as they can, and in as many ways as they can, from verbal intimidation to physical violence.  But inevitably the border which has divided the ghetto from the rest of the world falls into the hands of the ghetto.  The white people fall back bitterly before the black horde; the landlords make a tidy profit by raising the rent, chopping up the rooms, and all but dispensing with the upkeep; and what has once been a neighborhood turns into a “turf.”  This is precisely what happened when the Puerto Ricans arrived in their thousands — and the bitterness thus caused is, as I write, being fought out all up and down those streets.

Northerners indulge in an extremely dangerous luxury.  They seem to feel that because they fought on the right side during the Civil Way, and won that they have earned the right to merely deplore what is going on in the South, without taking any responsibility for it; and that they can ignore what is happening in Northern cities because what is happening in Little Rock or Birmingham is worse.  Well, in the first place, it is not possible for anyone who has not endured both to know which is “worse.”  I know Negroes who prefer the South and white Southerners, because “At least there, you haven’t got to play any guessing games!”  The guessing games referred to have driven more than one Negro into the narcotics ward, the madhouse, or the river.  I know another Negro, a man very dear to me, who says, with conviction and with truth, “The spirit of the South is the spirit of America.”  He was born in the North and did his military training in the South.  He did not, as far as I can gather, find the South “worse”; he found it, if anything, all too familiar.  In the second place, though, even if Birmingham is worse, no doubt Johannesburg, South Africa, beats it by several miles, and Buchenwald was one of the worst things that ever happened in the entire history of the world.  The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes.  This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling.  The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes.  Thirdly, the South is not merely an embarrassingly backward region, but a part of this country, and what happens there concerns every one of us.

As far as the color problem is concerned, there is but one great difference between the Southern white and the Northerner; the Southerner remembers, historically, and in his own psyche, a kind of Eden in which he loved black people and they loved him.  Historically, the flaming sword laid across this Eden is the Civil War.  Personally, it is the Southerner’s sexual coming of age, when, without any warning, unbreakable taboos are set up between himself and his past.  Everything, thereafter, is permitted him expect the love he remembers and has never ceased to need.  The resulting, indescribable torment affects every Southern mind and is the basis of the Southern hysteria.

None of this is true for the Northerner.  Negroes represent nothing to him personally, except, perhaps, the dangers of carnality.  He never sees Negroes.  Southerners see them all the time.  Northerners never think about them whereas Southerners are never really thinking of anything else.  Negroes are, therefore, ignored in the North and are under surveillance in the South, and suffer hideously in both places.  Neither the Southerner nor the Northerner is able to look on the Negro simply as a man.  It seems to be indispensable to the national self-esteem that the Negro be considered either as a kind of ward (in which case we are told how many Negroes, comparatively, bought Cadillacs last year and how few, comparatively, were lynched), or as a victim (in which case we are promised that he will never vote in our assemblies or go to school with our kids).  They are two sides of the same coin and the South will not change — cannot change — until the North changes.  The country will not change until it reexamines itself and discover what it really means by freedom.  In the meantime, generations keep being born, bitterness is increased by incompetence, pride, and folly, and the world shrinks around us.

It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the fact of one’s victim, one sees oneself.  Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become.


I would simply add that even though Baldwin wrote this piece in 1960, much remains the same with respect to the treatment of the “black man.”  In fact, one might say that things are worse, what with the country’s first black president presiding over the populace and his willful declaration of a post-racial America, as fixtures of urban and now suburban America in ghettos and racially segregated enclaves continue to evolve in complexity and size.

No Party in Sweet Auburn

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

On Sunday I visited Dr. King’s memorial for the first time since moving to Atlanta and a deep sadness came over me.  Not because Dr. King is dead — we all kick the bucket sooner or later and Dr. King did it sooner than most.  That it came about because of Dr. King’s extraordinary deeds is a reflection of the esteem in which he was held domestically and abroad and the inviolability of his many messages advocating for social justice.  No, my sadness stemmed from what I have come to realize is the dawn and perhaps the twilight of a new generation in which a figure like Dr. King and the kind of movement that he was partly responsible for bringing to reality are increasingly considered relics and legends suitable only as exhibits in a museum and not as examples from which similar demonstrations of indignation and outrage may be provoked.  Today, such passions are instead openly and garishly displayed by those who perhaps embody beliefs and qualities almost diametrically opposed to those espoused and possessed by Dr. King.  I need not name names or bandy about labels to underscore this point; in any event, to do so would be a great undertaking if the showing at the most recent Tea Party rally in Washington D.C. is any indication.

How did we get to this point?  Did our economic system not  just implode because of lax or nonexistent governmental oversight and a culture of greedy uber-competitiveness?  Do we not have the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration and infant mortality rates among industrialized countries?  Is income inequality in this country not at its highest levels in American history?

And yet those rallying in Washington this past weekend, in arguing for greater deregulation and fewer public-conscious programs, effectively thumbed their noses at all those who don’t have an offshore bank account or fortified tax shelter — that is, perhaps 95% of the American pubic, or more depending on how skewed one views the current wealth distribution in this country. No demonstration of equal fervor or organization sought to offer a counter-message.  Al Sharpton and his contingent were present but that, for better or worse, is simply a non-event these days.

There are two theories, in my mind, that might explain the current state of affairs.  I imagine first that the folks who are most likely to disagree with the recent demonstrators at the Washington Mall consider them to be crazy reactionaries out to vent some long pen- up frustrations.  This being the case, we deem them to be mostly harmless; the human equivalent of a New Year’s noisemaker.  And I must admit, I would include myself in that camp.  Yet the truth is far less benign.  At the very least, regardless of how asinine and backward the messages and proclamations of the Tea Party-ers and their fellow travelers might be, their simple existence and circulation in mass media is bound to have some persuasive effect on some person.  To leave such messages unanswered and unchallenged is the equivalent of knowingly handing over the safe combination to a robber armed with a toy pistol.

The more puzzling phenomenon that seems to have enabled and is itself perhaps furthered by the recent rally is our current reluctance to advocate for the downtrodden and dispossessed, and to do so on a general scale without allegiance to a particular race or group.  One doing so, it appears, often risks being labeled a liberal or even worse socialist, the consequences of which may prove dire with the near indelible mark almost everyone leaves on the Internet, whether intended or not, and our country’s irrational and unfortunate distaste for all-things even hinting of Socialism.  Not that it is inappropriate to be outlandish or even radical in one’s messages as long as one leans to the right.  This, I would venture to guess, is why President Obama has thus far given our outlandish neighbors to the right free reign in their collective display of what can be described, simply, as a massive inferiority complex.  His weakness in this regard is unfortunate and concerning but by no means surprising.

It seems to me that until someone is able to discredit the Tea Party and similar groups in a systematic, comprehensive, and public fashion, their outrageously veiled message of apartheid (“taking back America”) will continue unabated and unchallenged.  I don’t imagine this will be a hard task, but perhaps labor and resource-intensive.  The more vexing issue is whether it will ever be possible for a Dr-King-like figure to dominate the public consciousness.  I do not see this happening any time soon.  As dire as our present circumstances are, most folks, even when confronted with the facts — a challenge in and of itself — are simply too oppressed by the rigors of day-to-day survival and distracted by the latest high-tech invention to give a damn.

“Positive Peace” – Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I post here in belated honor of Dr. King’s 85th birthday the letter that Dr. King wrote from jail in Birmingham, Alabama.  This letter was written in response to a joint statement by several Alabama clergymen who called for the black community to stop its (peaceful) demonstrations for equal rights and to follow court orders.

Here is Dr. King’s reply, in full:

16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. 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. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, 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. 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.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts 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 county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. 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.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? 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? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” 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 South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.

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King, Martin Luther Jr.