Martin Luther King Jr.


Four months before he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King Jr. spent Easter 1963 in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. While there, using toilet paper to write on, he composed a letter that became a classic of American political literature--his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

King was in Birmingham to organize a boycott of stores that posted signs reading "WHITES ONLY." He petitioned the city for a permit to protest the discriminatory policy, but Birmingham officials repeatedly denied his applications. When he decided to march in protest anyway, he and many of his supporters found themselves in jail.

King's letter is an argued defense of civil disobedience. King, who had studied Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and Mahatma Gandhi's writings on the same theme, began by distinguishing just laws from unjust. He then argued that free citizens have an obligation to break unjust laws, and to suffer the consequences of their disobedience, in order to draw attention to those unjust laws.

King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" outlines four steps that must be followed before engaging in civil disobedience: (1) collect the facts to determine whether there is an injustice (rather than a simple misunderstanding); (2) negotiate and try to get the law changed; (3) prepare to respond non-violently and make sure that your motives are pure; and (4) take direct action and accept the consequences of those actions.

If you listen to the part of King's "I Have a Dream" speech in which he talks about "those of you who have come fresh from narrow jail cells," you will recognize that he is also referring to his and his followers' actions in Birmingham four months earlier.

A year after the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. started his new job as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. While there, he took on a role that would define his life: champion of the non-violent civil rights movement.

When Rosa Parks, a seamstress and a secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man in 1955, a crisis broke out in the city. King became the leader of a bus boycott that had been planned by local civil rights organizers for years. For more than a year, blacks in Montgomery refused to use the buses. Many workers got up early in the morning, walked for miles to their jobs, worked a full day, and then walked that same distance home. They did this through the heat of an Alabama summer and through the cold of winter. King was crucial to holding the boycott together.

On December 21, 1956--381 days after the boycott had started--Dr. King and Rev. Glen Smiley, a white minister, shared the front seat of a public bus. This is where the story usually ends, in a neat package. But two days after the successful end of the boycott, at 1:30 AM, a shotgun blast ripped through the door of Dr. King's home. King, his wife, and his baby daughter, Yoki, were inside, but none of them were injured. King chose not to call the police. But he did tell his Dexter congregation that in their work for full equality, including desegregated schools, "it may be that some of us have to die." The young pastor had started to "bear the cross" of leadership.

When Dr. Martin Luther King visited northern cities in the mid-1960s, people challenged him: Why should they remain peaceful when the American government was pursuing war in Vietnam? "They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home," King said in a speech in 1967, "and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

Many people questioned King's entry into the arena of foreign policy. They asked why he did not "stick to civil rights." When King and his colleagues founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 it was "to save the soul of America." Because Dr. King felt that the US involvement in Vietnam jeopardized that soul, he could not remain silent. And as US forces grew in Vietnam, King's criticism grew more outspoken.

King the civil rights leader was embraced as the nation's moral leader for equality, but King the critic of America's wars and of its economic system was more controversial. In fact, most chronologies of King's life jump from his 1965 voting rights efforts in Selma, Alabama, to his assassination in 1968. It is as though the later years, when he spoke out against Vietnam and focused on poverty initiatives, never existed.

But Dr. King's greatness lay in his willingness to take on every challenge his conscience demanded of him, whatever the risk to his reputation, or his life.

Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: January 10, 2002
Contact: Terry Muse