We have just finished covering short stories in my home school co-op English 1 class. This week I slid into a brief bit of short nonfiction and assigned my students March, Book 1 and Martin Luther King Jr.s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The letter was one of three suggestions of short nonfiction that rose to the top of suggestions, and I don’t honestly recall how I chose it. I am sincerely happy I did, though, for two reasons: One, it dovetails wonderfully with March; two, it is splendid! One of the best things I’ve ever read, actually.
And it was just a letter written from jail?! One in which King apologizes for it being too long, due to his many hours of sitting around in a jail cell?! The copy I have is five and a half letter-sized pages of very small type (but with an extra hard return between the paragraphs). I don’t know if I was ever forced to read this as a teenager, but if I did I must have either done it in a fog of tiredness (under which I did many an assignment), not understanding what I was reading, or I was too young to appreciate it.
The briefest of backgrounds, because not many people will be unsure of it: Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher in the 50s and 60s and the foremost leader of the Civil Rights movement. He was an important proponent of nonviolent resistance and gave amazing speeches and made critical connections. He made a huge difference in American Civil Rights before being assassinated way too young and at the height of his leadership. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written from Birmingham Jail, where he had been arrested and was being held for taking part in a demonstration in one of the most segregated cities in the country (at the time). The letter is a response to an open letter in the local newspaper from Birmingham church and temple leaders, condemning King as an “outside agitator.” Then, from solitary, he responds.
And it’s not just about the content, which is inspiring and important. Sure, it’s a piece of history and something that can even be applied in various ways to our lives today, but it is also one of the most intelligent and beautifully crafted things I have laid eyes on. The language is crisply specific and at the same time soars with passion. And as for well-argued! The best way I know to describe “Birmingham Jail” is one mic drop after another. Like epic mic drops. King just shuts it down and in the most respectful and calm way possible. Sometimes it’s the expected response, but sometimes you’re just so shocked because it’s a fresh, profound way of really seeing the situation. And seeing people. What an incredible person King was. I have meant to read his autobiography for years, but now I have moved it up my list.
So if you’re in the mood for a bit of historic, civil rights reading (or you just want to be a better or wiser person), run—don’t walk—to print out a copy of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Make sure you’re awake and alert, and just let it out by yelling “boom!” every time he drops that mic.
(I could have included many more, but then I would only be re-publishing his letter.)
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
“Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”
“…as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
“I agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
“A just lay is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.”
“Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively.”