Marking 50 years since ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’

Fifty years ago this week, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in an Alabama jail cell and wrote what was destined to become a defining document of the American civil rights movement – and the global struggle for justice.

But as Carlton Mark Waterhouse, associate professor at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law, points out, the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” appeared at a time of great uncertainty about whether the movement and its young and idealistic leader would succeed.

Carlton Mark Waterhouse

Carlton Mark Waterhouse

“Today we tend to think of it as a done deal. At that time, it was really unclear what the outcome would be,” said Waterhouse, who has written and given talks about the meaning of King’s letter.

King was jailed in April 1963 for leading anti-segregation marches and protests in Birmingham in defiance of a judge’s order. Responding to moderate white clergy, who suggested King and his cohorts were “outside agitators” and asked for patience in addressing racial injustice, King made a passionate but cogent argument that civil disobedience was not only proper but necessary.

“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” he wrote. “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.’” (You can listen online to a reading of the letter by Lecia Brooks, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala.).

While King’s letter was directed at a group of ministers, Waterhouse said, he was conscious of a larger audience – a public that was just starting to pay attention to the battle playing out in the South. With the U.S. fighting a Cold War with the Soviet Union, King’s Birmingham campaign, and the violent response that it provoked, grabbed the attention of the nation’s leaders.

“Birmingham, in particular, made the country look bad,” Waterhouse said. “You could watch television all over the world and see police using fire hoses and dogs against children and teenagers.”

In retrospect, progress in civil rights came remarkably fast. In August 1963, King led a quarter million people in a march on Washington, D.C., where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964. Additional rights legislation promptly followed.

And 45 years ago this month, King also was felled by an assassin.

Waterhouse said the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” may not have played a huge role in swaying public opinion, but it positioned the civil rights movement as intellectually and morally serious.

“It provided that theoretical underpinning, that intellectual apology for the movement,” he said. “It was necessary to compel people to see this as a well thought-out, well-reasoned movement that was rooted in Western tradition and rooted within the Christian tradition.”

Waterhouse said it’s wrong to put King’s letter in “a historical box” and assume it was only relevant in the ‘60s. “The fundamental argument he’s making about why he and others are in Birmingham is a call for all of us to move away from our comfort with the status quo when others are suffering,” he said.

And that’s something to remember, Waterhouse said, as the nation struggles with immigration, poverty, environmental justice, gay rights and other issues – not to mention the continued effects of racial segregation and injustice.

“All of these issues call for a justice analysis,” he said, “and a willingness to leave our comfort zone in order to bring about justice for all people.”

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