Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

for Gordon Schochet

A certain kind of person likes to label things “great” or “important” and not bother to explain why. I worry I am becoming that kind of person, as teaching means assuming the value of what one teaches.

So I would like to take the time to establish that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has a particular importance, i.e. that of a founding document. This may feel to some of you to be an exercise in pedantry. Who cares what is considered a “founding document?” That’s history nerd talk, up there with “ranking the Presidents” in terms of generating useless opinions.

But let’s say you’re generating a syllabus for a class on American Politics. You’re planning on starting with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, maybe touching on the Federalist before getting into the Bill of Rights, then speaking about the Civil War, Progressivism, Race and Civil Rights each on separate days. What you prioritize doesn’t just “impact” students, whatever that means. What you pick, in what order you teach it, and how you teach it sets the conversation the students and you have. It sets the tone for how they talk to each other and elsewhere. Those who want to continue with the field build their syllabi from what they’ve covered previously. If “Letter from Birmingham Jail” received a cursory look years ago, it more than likely will receive a cursory look years later. If it fits all too neatly into a narrative where one’s classroom is indistinguishable from a slightly more somber 4th of July party, that’s a lasting failure on our part as educators.

I propose teaching the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail on the same day. What is crucial for students to realize is the incredible ignorance, hate, and violence the United States has employed in denying its own citizens their full rights. How does a political culture whose central tenet is a declaration of equality—a declaration of “unalienable Rights”—advance so much hostility toward the existence of other people? It is crucial for students to see the universal appeal of these documents as being in direct conflict with any coincidence between their feelings of comfort and their sense of having rights. Rights and equality aren’t about our comfort: they’re about whether people can be treated with dignity and trusted to share in the privileges and responsibilities of society.

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The Gettysburg Address, with its invocation that “all men are created equal” is a “proposition,” brings the weight of history to bear on Jefferson’s “truth” held “self-evident.” America actually existed for fourscore and seven years, and the rhetoric of the Declaration failed to bring forth people of Enlightenment. Instead, America produced genocidal maniacs who launched wars of expansion and annihilation against the first nations. The Union understood itself as Manifest Destiny, and this bloody callousness seems to have been a point of agreement for all Americans. It is almost strange that slavery should have been so contentious, given the inhumanity on display. But “all men are created equal” isn’t a challenge or a prophecy for a nation. It’s just a few words which every basic speaker of English can understand. In order for words to have meaning—in order for American citizens to understand themselves as having the least bit of sanity—those words have to have some truth.

In my not-so-short life, I have unfortunately encountered some white Americans who are deeply proud of their whiteness. I’m not talking about being proud of winning WW2 or putting a man on the moon, being part of an America that did amazing things. No, these people, who are not neo-Nazis or extremists, literally think that their skin color is a good thing which rightly entitles them. (I think what absolutely stunned me once was when I heard overt bragging about privilege. I could not believe that one would believe oneself justified and another deserving of suffering because of skin pigmentation.) It’s about all they’ve thought—it’s not hard to see they haven’t thought much else. They see other people as almost exclusively defined by their race, but if asked about race itself, will declare with incredulity that they have never really thought about it or they don’t see color.

In short, America’s inequality isn’t only a threat to democratic practice. It’s the mark of insanity. Why on earth would you want to believe yourself superior because of how you looked? Even extremely beautiful people pride themselves on their regimen or their personality or whatever. But when it comes to whiteness, such rules don’t apply: something about whiteness has made itself key to our perceptions of “normal” and “good,” and one tragedy is that this is being passed down as we speak.

I believe Lincoln was trying to address that insanity when implying that equality was the work for which we, the “living,” should “be dedicated.” Proclaiming equality self-evident was a bit of a trap: bigots and idiots would always see what they want to see, justify what they want to justify, taking no additional effort. But if you have to prove “all men are created equal,” you have to make the effort to see inequality and injustice. You have to see others as worthy of rights and ask yourself what you can do for them. This is the “new birth of freedom,” the spirit which brought forth the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

The spirit, which after the failure of Reconstruction and the fascism of Jim Crow, finds testimony in the work and lives of the Birmingham protestors. Jefferson wrote the Declaration in order to justify a war; Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address in order to fully win the peace. Neither speaks directly to a nearly unfathomable reality—to be treated for generations in your own country like you don’t deserve, you don’t belong. To be considered only worthy of humiliation. To have to endure beatings in the hope that the rights to which you are legally entitled will be affirmed. MLK:

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?”

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is continuous with Lincoln’s “be dedicated,” but one man’s rhetoric is another man’s reality. In this case, the reality of winning one’s rights entails realizing and grasping that one’s own country holds an exceptional viciousness. That viciousness does not limit itself to the brutality used against protestors. Note how change happens: one has to endure violence, hope that it is documented and reported, hope that such documentation and reportage finds sympathetic people, and then hope that those people will want to help change things. It’s not exactly a war MLK is fighting. But something about trying to make the United States live up to its founding principles is of a magnitude I cannot articulate. I can only point to it, wondering how much more subtle and observant I need to be to have anything like moral wisdom.

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As a founding document, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” not only shows the vast difference between those who are privileged and those who should have rights, but it also indirectly engages the framers in dialogue about what they misunderstood. The universality of the Gettysburg Address—”any nation so conceived and so dedicated”—speaks to a failure of the framers’ imagination. I imagine Lincoln was not exactly happy during the war that the founding generation didn’t take a stronger stand against slavery. Didn’t they realize, if they were successful in building a republic, that people would emulate them? Didn’t they realize might pass on their worst habits, their original sin?

When MLK speaks of “natural law” & “human personality,” he draws on a moral tradition and psychological insight that the Founders purposefully and badly neglected:

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…. 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.

I am cutting out MLK’s references to Buber and Tillich for the sake of brevity, but also because “natural law” poses a unique challenge to the American enterprise. It can be considered a challenge which traditionalists want to use to overturn all phenomena they consider “modern.” There are a number who want to use “natural law” to deny women rights, argue all technology is unsound, and attack the foundations of classical liberalism. They want everyone to share their fundamentalist views of religion, views which have made them suspect to others in their own religion.

A more serious challenge, the one I’d like students to consider, is that “natural law” implies that human rationality can be put to moral ends. Reason does not merely exist to serve “ambition” or secure “property;” it is not simply an instrument of appetites. The question of “natural law” implies that Madison is wrong when he says that if there were a deliberative body made of men like Socrates, they would act like any other deliberate body—stupidly and competitively and viciously.

The Founders, like the men who brought modern science into existence, had to deal with a world where moral and religious rhetoric were horribly corrupt. There were people who would speak of humanity, the rational animal, and the moral law while at the same time supporting the massacre of factions they didn’t like. Perhaps, one can say, this was endemic to the Continent with its unending religious warfare. Fine—the Founders didn’t want to bring that here, per Jefferson’s First Inaugural. They wanted a republic markedly more secular. I don’t think their decision was too rash or indefensible. Rather, it lacked a certain subtlety, a subtlety that only a Socrates might address in the rarest of circumstances. It lacked any real awareness of how belief in America might work, what myths might govern the American people. More damning: the Founders failed to legitimize the talk by which we might uplift “human personality” and learn to recognize each other’s humanity. The Founding ended up leaving that sort of thing to the spirit of the First Amendment, by which we all “know” that Nazi speech is protected speech.

I do not believe that “natural law” is any serious solution to flaws in the framers’ design. I do believe there is more to American citizenship than “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We need to truly appreciate our diversity, celebrate it, and better know what we stand for while affirming each other. A society organized under a secular government needs more serious talk of morals, not less. Not moralism or bullying of marginalized groups, but a genuine confrontation of the values we think we have. I’m not sure exactly how this works, but a guideline that’s been useful to me in practice: You know you’re doing something right when different people feel affirmed around you.

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It is MLK’s optimism that, for some, will make “Letter” unquestionably a Founding document. It is an optimism of which I remain unconvinced:

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…. 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.

“One day the South will recognize its real heroes”—this I wish were true, but I don’t think it is. What we see in the United States at the present moment is the full convergence of media and identity. The reality TV President—old, rich, ignorant, crude and buffoonish—is in a way how his supporters see themselves. They become him as they defend him, no matter what lofty intellectual or rhetorical heights they began from. This convergence of media and identity occurs because there is no serious check on American selfishness. Having tens of billions, hundreds of billions of dollars, is clearly wrong. But we romanticize this tyranny, calling it “job creation” and celebrating “innovation.” In like manner, the world functions as a mirror to most Americans. They only feel assured if they see themselves everywhere.

Diversity is ongoing, difficult work. I myself would celebrate the values of a “Judaeo Christian heritage” by merely practicing the values over against shouting notice of the “heritage.” In order to drink of the “great wells of democracy” at the present moment, one must demand just treatment for minorities, especially Muslims and non-citizens. One needs to be acutely conscious of the bullying and savage treatment of trans people. Heroism does not speak for itself: bigots want the remarkable actions and lives of others to be ignored. They create conditions by which isolation and loneliness can be inflicted on anyone. I do not see how the heroism of the past can be truly celebrated unless we learn to celebrate each other. I do not understand how America might become a loving, thoughtful society over against the superficial and crass one I live within now. I do know a hard look at what rights entail, the necessity of serious moral reasoning, and an indefatigable optimism make MLK a true Founding figure, one who should be read with the utmost reverence and care.

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