Martin Luther King Jr. left behind a lot of impactful words. For my money, nothing the civil rights leader wrote is as powerful as the nearly 7,000 words of "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Martin Luther King Jr. left behind a lot of impactful words. For my money, nothing the civil rights leader wrote is as powerful as the nearly 7,000 words of "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

More than a half century after its composition, this powerful missive stands as perhaps the finest articulation of the need for justice and equality for all. King biographer Stephen Oates called the letter "the most eloquent and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written."

The letter was written following King's jailing during the April 1963 Birmingham, Ala., campaign, which included coordinated marches and sit-ins to protest racism and segregation in this deeply divided city. King and two of his associates were jailed for disobeying a judge's blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing" in the city. When eight white Alabama clergymen published an article in the local press denouncing King and his fellow demonstrators' methods, the civil rights leader wrote his response from his jail cell on the very newspaper that carried the article. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" would go on to become one of the most powerful works of rhetoric in history.

The clergymen's letter, ironically titled "A Call to Unity," reads in part: "...we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely."

It concludes: "We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense."

King focuses part of his response on the article's question of why now? What's the hurry? The clergymen say in time the evils of segregation, the Jim Crow laws (which were still in effect in some areas), and systemic discrimination will pass away. However, King isn't buying. He writes:

"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."

While he has cited Chief Justice Earl Warren's famous quote that "justice too long delayed, is justice denied," King's argument, it seems to me, draws on an important aspect of American history. In his letter, King brings to mind one of the central themes in African American struggles from more than a half century earlier, and a debate that raged primarily between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over the best way for blacks around the turn of the last century to be given their full rights under the law.

Washington and other black leaders in the Atlanta Compromise of 1895 made an unwritten pact with white Southern leaders that blacks would not retaliate against racist behavior and would submit to continued discriminate on a number of fronts - including segregation and the lack of voting and workplace rights - in exchange for educational and employment opportunities, along with access to pursue justice through the American legal system.

Du Bois and other like-minded blacks saw no reason to wait, and even less reason to submit to continued discrimination for the promise of future progress. For them, it was time to fight for their rights. Du Bois devoted part of his seminal book from 1903, "The Souls of Black Folk," to the argument, and two years later, helped bring together black leaders near Niagara Falls to draft a declaration of principles opposing the Atlanta Compromise. Put succinctly, the so-called Niagara Movement's main point was a stand against "bartering ... manhood for the sake of gain."

It came down to a question of African-Americans being told to wait and earn their rights, or to fight for them. These rights were, of course, deemed inalienable by The Declaration of Independence, the same document that declared all men were created equal.

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" does not mention Du Bois or Washington by name but clearly echoes this crucial chapter in American history, and extends its lessons to present-day 1963. When I teach African-American literature to university students and ask them which approach they'd go with, most side with Du Bois. However, Washington's "compromise" often garners a few adherents.

King's famous letter says much more, including the right for just men to break unjust laws and the role of organized religion in the promotion of justice. However, in citing the need to act sooner rather than later, he revisits an old debate, and redefines the need to "fight" for one's rights in the context of his preferred practice of nonviolent resistance. In doing so, the civil rights icon restates the ideals this country was founded on, demanding for his brothers and sisters the rights of justice and equality. His words and actions helped turn the Birmingham Campaign into a turning point in the fight for civil rights.

Dr. King also gave us a memorable turn of phrase that has served as a clarion call for oppressed peoples around the world: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

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