Dr. Martin Luther’s King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” dated April 16, 1963, is one of the great documents of American history and literature. Written under the pressure of the moment, it reveals for all time the essence of Dr. King’s thought as no other single document does.
The letter, written on legal-sized sheets and addressed to a group of local, mostly white clergymen who had advocated that King and his fellow marchers show patience and not go on the march for which they were arrested, is more than just a moving plea for peace and social justice. It is an argument, showing why such marches for civil rights must be taking place. The logic of that argument is unassailable, an extraordinary claim for me to make, and I do not make it lightly, but read the letter for yourself, and you will see that King strips away every single excuse the clergymen have for not joining King and the other protesters on the march. The only opposition to the letter that might hold up would come from those opposed to the idea of altruism itself, as popularized in some circles of psychology and by the novelist Ayn Rand. Yet, even that opposition would not be, and is not, opposed to the promulgation of peace and love. To them, the spread of such a virtue is best left to the individual conscience, and to the individual act, rather than being fostered by the broader and sometimes erring will of a collective effort.
I am moved by the whole letter, and have been for many years. But there is one short passage early in the document that humbles me every time I read it. It also happens to be a passage that speaks directly to our moment, fifty-four years later:
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
There are those who think Dr. King’s thoughts in this passage apply to African-Americans alone. Not so. His words echo those of John Donne from three hundred years before in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Dr. King was not advocating for or defending the actions of those who deliberately take the lives of others by crossing borders and shooting or bombing targets under the auspices of some nebulous God. He defended, rather, the right of every American citizen–of any race–to engage in the lawful and sometimes necessary practice of civil disobedience to social and political injustice. Those citizens who engage in it, lawfully, peaceably, with love as their motivation and their goal, are not “outsiders” anywhere within these states. To me, King’s final words in this passage are as eloquent and piercing as any that Jefferson or Lincoln ever wrote, and just as much a part of the social contract that has sustained us since the writing of our Constitution. They express both an imperative to change our thinking about each other immediately, and an ideal to work toward constantly. They also make me, as I think about them, very, very proud to be a citizen of the United States.