This is a post in a series of reflections for the Black Lives Matter movement. To read other reflections, please go to the Black Lives Matter page.
The summer interns discussed and reflected upon Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)‘. This letter was written by King, from prison, after he was arrested for leading a demonstration against racism and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. At the time, Birmingham was notorious for being one of the most heavily segregated cities in all of America. Shortly after King’s arrest, 8 local Jewish and Christian Leaders published an open letter in the Birmingham newspaper condemning the demonstrations and King as well. In jail King wrote a response to this letter addressed to his “fellow clergymen”, known famously today as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. In this letter King justifies and defends against the number of criticisms his campaign had faced, including an eloquent explanation of his nonviolence philosophy. The letter has become a central text in the American Civil Rights Movement. Below are the written reflections of the interns after reading and discussing this text.
To read Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail‘, please click here.
For more context on the events surrounding this letter, please click here.
Reading MLK’s letter today I was once again struck by the sheer magnitude of intelligence and spirituality that he had. It’s incredible, almost inconceivable, that a person who faced so much hardship and tribulation in his life could maintain such a high level of morality and altruism. I often question how MLK was able to live the life that he did. Was there something about him that made him inherently more benevolent than the average person? Was it through religion and faith that he was able to accomplish and live the life that he did? Perhaps there was nothing innately special about him and all people have the potential to become that magnanimous, that filled with love and wisdom. Is it fear that holds us back? Is it a lack of passion and the excessive tendency to become passive? Looking at the world today, we could use a lot more leaders, more people even, who are like MLK.
It makes me wonder if I could ever be someone like that. I feel as though I have become desensitized to many of the issues going on. I often feel constrained by my position in society, like I am unable to make any sort of difference and impact as an individual. That frustration with my position would foster feelings of hopelessness, anger, frustration and guilt but slowly I became numb. I would say to myself: “there’s nothing you can do to fix these issues so why beat yourself up about them. Making your own life miserable, on top of the people who are already suffering, does nothing to make the situation better. The most you can do is focus on yourself and work to put yourself in a position where you can actually make a difference.” I guess the problem is that I will most likely end up waiting forever.
Like it said in the Birmingham documentary, youth and children have the least amount of responsibility in their life and can afford to take risks without endangering too much. The trade off is that youth are not often taken seriously and are brushed off to the side. Still, perhaps the time to take action is now, but it’s much easier said than done. As I enter grade 12, it’s exciting and scary as it feels like the world is just ripe with opportunities that are mine for the taking, but the question that I’ve wrestled with is which choices do I make? Do I take the avenue of security and comfort or the avenue of challenge and impact? Or perhaps there is an option that will allow me to have both?
Not to mention that our societal issues seem more implicit and tacit then in MLKs time. I feel as though we are at a point where there are not many explicit injustices in the world but more underlying and deep rooted issues whose solutions are harder to visualize, let alone achieve. For example, in MLK’s time I feel it was much simpler and clearer in how to enact change. There was a clear goal, and the path to reach it seemed clearer. Of course it was still incredibly challenging, in every sense, but at least there was direction. Maybe it is due to my lack of education, but it seems like there are no clear solutions to our modern day problems. How do we reach genuine equality? Because on paper, in our legislation, we technically have achieved it, and yet it has not materialized in our reality. Questions like how do we diversify people or bring down crime and single parenting rates in African American communities seem almost unanswerable. It seems like so many educated people have such contrasting and dissenting views on how to solve these problems that it leaves me confused, frustrated and hopeless. I sometimes wish that someone could just hand me a sign and tell me to risk my wellbeing by marching in front of an aggressive and racist population because at least I would know what to do, at least I could feel like I’m doing something. Obviously the grass is always greener on the other side and logically I would never exchange the privilege I have now, but sometimes the frustration feels too great.
As I’m writing this, I am once again feeling the familiar bubbling of frustration and hopelessness that I’ve learned to suppress. In a world filled with so much suffering and negativity, with no clear solutions, how do I proceed? It is much easier to suppress it, to sink into the bliss of ignorance but thats not the right thing to do. So what is? Should I educate myself more on these issues, try to find a solution myself? Do I tackle the external front and start speaking up more and using my voice? It also feels like I have not found an issue that I am overly passionate about, even though there are so many to choose from. Sure, I care about racism but who am, as an Asian woman, to want to devote my life to it? Perhaps feminism, but many can argue that equal access to opportunity already exists in North America and equal outcome is virtually impossible to attain. Perhaps I should look overseas, but it’s hard to feel passionate over something I’ve never experienced.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham has made me think a lot. I felt dismay and disbelief at how black people were constantly told to “Wait!” For hundreds of years they faced discrimination and injustice, and yet, they were told to “wait”. MLK describes this “wait” as almost always meaning “never”. He says in his letter, ‘Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait.’ He continues to describe what black people must face as they grow up, experiences he’s had, how they’ve shaped and changed his own family. He addresses this saying, ‘when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.’
Reading his letter and the feelings he’s expressed, I am at a loss for words. It’s unimaginable for me. To go through those kinds of experiences is something I would never imagine to happen to myself. It’s not right and it just isn’t fair! To think that challenges faced almost 60 years ago, are almost identical to what black people are still facing to this day is mind boggling. Yes, segregation may have become less explicit, but there is still this lingering problem; the same hurt, the same struggle, the same injustice, they’re all still there.
As I continued to read the letter, I was baffled to see how the church responded, how white ministers responded. The religious leaders called upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law. Rather than saying, ‘follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother,’ They say, ‘those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern.’ How can this be? How can people of the church say that this has nothing to do with faith and with God? How can ministers say this?! The people who lead the church?! I believe church is where you accept one another unconditionally, where you truly love your neighbour as yourself. But seeing these responses made me feel this deep sense of disappointment and resentment.
In current days, the death of one person and the manner in which he died set off this entire movement. Finally it seems like that lonely voice is being heard. After watching the documentary ‘No More: The Children of Birmingham 1963 and the Turning Point of the Civil Rights Movement’ I believe that we can create change in this world. Like all the children in the video, we can do something to make a difference. In our discussion today, Simon told us that we can only live a life for others and for justice when our hearts are connected with ourselves. I pray that like MLK, we may be able to cultivate true spirituality and intellect, and become a unique voice in this world. I hope that we all become in tune with our own hearts, recognize how we feel, and have discipline. And through this all, I pray we become moved, so that we can go on to change people’s hearts.
It scares me how alike our situation is to what MLK Jr describes in his letter. So many things sound familiar; the protests, Black children realizing they are treated differently than others, those in power who dismiss the movement and the passiveness of those who choose to be comfortably uncomfortable. There are many of the same sentiments, obstacles, and perspectives.
After watching the video, I am reminded of how many people died, and how people continue to die even as people are protesting and demanding change. In the past, several young people had to die violently and suddenly to catch the attention of the president. The fact that death, violent, horrible deaths, are needed to trigger change makes me realize just how complacent we have been to these issues. In the past, I sympathized with Black people, but I never did anything about it. Hearing what MLK Jr had to say about how he despises ‘shallow understanding from good willed people’ and seeing how students marched and faced police brutality for change made me realize just how little I’ve been actively doing.
As a Canadian and a Korean person, it’s easy to hide behind our own ‘goodness’ and our own struggles to discount the fact that I had to feel any kind of guilt. But now I can see just how passively I’ve been and how this passiveness isn’t just an issue that affects my generation, but something that has blocked real change for decades. It makes me think: maybe is why Black people today are still feeling and experiencing similar things that they faced 60 years ago. Although the obvious segregation is gone, it is till apparent in our neighbourhoods, governments, and our daily lives. I feel disappointed and frustrated that MLK Jr’s letter is still so relevant today.
What we are facing is like an afterimage of what MLK Jr faced when he was writing from that jail, and yet he was so composed, eloquent, and his faith was so strong. It’s amazing to see how much intelligence and spirituality he had. How can we achieve that level of composure and faith? Looking at current events, I feel as though God is missing. Why do people have to keep dying horribly for change to occur? Why is this the way to change people’s minds? Why is there so much violence and hatred and ignorance? Where has God been for Black people? Why has he let them suffer for so long, and continue to do so?
As we talk about and reflect on this issue more and more, I realize how much privilege I have. I’m watching these events unfold from the comfort of my room, with no fear that similar things could happen to me. Even though I am several degrees removed from the first-hand experience Black people in America are going through, I am questioning God’s presence. How could MLK Jr have so much faith and so much spirituality?
After reading the letter a part that sparked to me was “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” The fact that Hitler made laws that allowed him to practically cause a genocide to the jews, and he made it illegal for Hungarian freedom fighters illegal to support the jews. It surprises me that one man has enough power to kill millions of people with just a few words, but over the past few years laws and power have become better but not perfect. They are still in a work in progress in my opinion.
When I first began reading the letter, I was just amazed by the eloquence of MLK. His honest and prophetic-like writing, full of figurative language really helped me try and picture his thoughts and feelings through these difficult times. Adding to his class and grace, was his revolutionary vision of non-violent protests. Instead of throwing riots and succumbing to violence, he chose to lead the movement based on pacifism and love instead of hatred. Instead of letting his people choose violence and help build the stereotype that white people had of black people (violent, aggressive, lower-class), he chose to create a new image and vision for his people. By choosing this, he was able to show the oppression and brutality that black people faced and got the American people to try and understand and empathize with them, leading to change. Every time I read one of his speeches or hear his stories, I’m just amazed by his visionary and revolutionary mindset, his philosophy of love and nonviolence and the many parallels I see between his figure and the acts of Jesus. I just wish that in today’s world we had that same leadership to help guide us through these times of great divisiveness.
Another point that really stood out to me was when MLK said “the biggest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ “Councilor” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.” I think that quote still rings today, although the “white moderate” has made great progress in creating a more equal and fair society, there still seems to be almost a sense of “what more” or “what now” instead of a sense of empathizing or understanding. Even just browsing on instagram and seeing the comments, especially on sport pages like ESPN, many predominantly white males choose not to try and understand the meanings of the protests and instead look at the damages and results, almost blaming them instead. I feel that during these times of decisiveness, we need to try and understand each other instead of making judgements of the actions of others. Hopefully this way, more people can empathize and change their perspectives slowly.
The Letter From Birmingham Jail made me feel truly in respect and awe of Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies for their ability to discern the most humane way to fight against racism. They recognized that they had to partake in a nonviolent campaign, and in order to prepare for this, they would have to go through the process of self-purification. The fact that they had workshops asking “are you able to accept the blows without retaliating?” and would not carry out the campaign until this was ingrained in their minds, that they should not ever hurt another man, was beyond amazing to me. This kind of selfless forgiveness and kindness, consideration they showed towards the white people who were oppressing their rights and discriminating against their own made me look in awe. Especially after reading the part where King describes what life was like to be a black person or black child in their times, it made me wonder. If those who were hurt this bad could see that violence and injustice is so wrong and that they would still prioritize the safety of the white people when trying to fight for their freedom, why are the white people like that? Why couldn’t they treat black people with even an ounce of respect? I was angered and frustrated with how I just couldn’t understand white peoples’ racist and violent perspectives, and admired black peoples very different values.
In the discussion, we went over how turning to nonviolent campaigning was only possible through having spirituality and intellect. This made me feel warmed and prideful over our God and the things he stands for. This kind of forgiveness and love for others is what we, Christians, are called to show to one another and it’s very heartwarming that this is what truly is important, what God wishes for us to give each other. I wish that this kind of goodness was innately human and that everyone would value serving others, and it saddens me to think that this is not the core value of every person on earth.
The last paragraph of the letter really hit me hard. It just made me so sad, picturing Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in a jail cell, writing this letter with eyes full of hope for imminent change. “I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.” As a brother. And yet, this letter is so relevant in our present. I was able to agree with what he had written, the importance of nonviolent campaigning and how there is no time to wait, how we should really act on all the suffering and bring an end to this oppression. This is a very present issue that we are dealing with now. I felt shameful reading the end of the letter that we haven’t been able to fix this sooner, wondering if King would be disappointed if he were to come and see the ongoing presence of racism in the past decades.
After watching the video and seeing how the Birmingham Campaign was an attempt to fight for black freedom and rights, it gives me hope that the protests these days after George Floyd is another chance to bring change. With so many more people recognizing and fighting the problem, it gives me hope that we are able to do what God wishes for us to do. Uplift one another, treat each other with love and respect. It’s very strange how the past few days have changed my own hope in the world, as I did not feel that shared sense of “we can do this.” I didn’t really believe in change being possible and I doubted that things might just go back to the way they were, but I think I slowly feel my own hope growing. I think now it’s a matter of really, what can I do? What action must I take to try to contribute to fighting for this cause? While supporting black people as we are as a faith community is nice, there would be no difference if we sat and did nothing – like those who just told them to “wait.” I think there are a lot of opportunities now and that will continue to show in the future for us to contribute to this change.
When I think about our world today, I can’t help but see the similarities between now and 60 years ago. It’s utterly disappointing to see that we haven’t changed that much since then. While reading his letter, his eloquently phrased words moved me to the point where every few sentences, I would find a quote to cherish. I could feel his frustration, his disappointment, and his desperate longing for change.
One of his quotes that really touched me was, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Another quote that tied in quite nicely with the previous one was, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In my understanding, they explain that we are all connected in some way or another. We are a whole, and if one gets hurt, we all suffer. It saddens me to see humanity full of hatred and pain, turning away from each other, and forgetting that we are all one.
When I think about why we are still at this point in history, and why racism still exists, I think about how this quote ties into that: “Priveleged groups never give up their privileges voluntarily.” My first thoughts are, how selfish can they be? But then, I realize that as much as it’s their pride that they don’t want to sacrifice by choice, they’re fearful for their loss of power. It shows the impact of their greed, and how they will never want to give up their entitlement. To be honest, I don’t know how we could possibly convince people to give up what they wrongly cherish the most. That also relates to his second quote that outlines the issues with collective thinking: “Groups are more immoral than individuals.” It saddens me to think that a morally good person, who understands that treating people differently and violently just because of the colour of their skin is wrong, could one day be brainwashed and pressured to think otherwise. The awful thing about hatred, is that it’s truly powerful, and it can spread like wildfire.
Later in the letter, when he talks about his experiences being a person of colour, as well as the frustrations that come with them, I felt a part of me ache. Black people have waited for more that 400 years for their human rights, and the end for systematic racism. When people, who’ve never been under oppression, tell them to wait, as Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned, that basically means that it’ll never happen. Those people have no right to tell them to wait, especially if their people have been killed, attacked, and dehumanized their entire lives. In his letter, he mentioned the time that he had to explain to his daughter that she couldn’t go somewhere because she was black. I know that she’s not the only one who’s heard that, at such a young age as well. From that early point in their lives, they wrongly develop a sense of inferiority, and begin to hate another race. What child deserves such a bitter and depressing childhood?
Next, in the letter, he addressed the meaning of laws, and made important distinctions surrounding them. A just law uplifts human personality, whereas an unjust law only degrades it. When I think about my understanding of laws, I never questioned them. However, after hearing what he said, I need to be constantly aware and thinking about whether our laws are morally contradictory. I realized that it is, as he said, “My moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Not all laws are just, and most of them are born out of the greed for order, disregarding of how humane they are.
As we mentioned the last time as well, indifference is worse than straight objection. Even during that time, their mere acceptance was, in a way, worse than the outright objection of some. It is very dangerous when one values order over justice, and when they care just the right amount that you can’t even change how they think or argue with them. Like Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” My last point is that black people have so much pent-up resentment and frustrations, and we must allow them to let those feelings out. His letter reminded me once again, that we have no right to judge their expression of frustration.
This is a bit off topic from my reflections after reading the letter, but I didn’t have the chance to mention it during our discussion, so I really wanted to say it here. After hearing what Paul said, I was so surprised to hear that someone else felt the same way that I did. There was an incident one night, when I felt so conflicted, confused, and like Paul said before, almost like a monster. You see, I’ve always lacked a deep sense of compassion, and I’ve always hated myself for that. I hate feeling so indifferent to what other people feel, because sometimes, just sometimes, I listen to someone’s story, and I find it hard to feel their sadness and their anger. I feel really fake sometimes, and my compassion for them is usually an act I put on to conceal my lack of it. That night, I was filled with some sort of indifference, and even though I was reading articles after articles, and stories after stories I was still filled with contradicting thoughts. When I think about why I wasn’t brimming with anger after hearing what has happened and what is continuously happening, I think about my biased prejudices about people of colour, and my jealousy in a way. As an asian, I want justice here in North America as well, and when this movement blew up, I was jealous of them. Can that even make any sense? After knowing about all the pain and oppression that they’ve been through and that are continuously going through, I hate it that I feel that way. I’m so frustrated with myself for being so self-absorbed, and for feeling so dull despite everything going on right now. I just hope that I can change.
There were a couple of things that stuck out in the letter. The first was how they were always told to wait and how their wait has been delayed and pushed back for so long. Reading all the things that black people have had to endure makes me understand more of why this change must be made. The second thing is how his wish was for a white minister to declare that they should integrate not because of the law, but because it is morally right. I think it just really emphasizes how fixated people are in their thinking and how clouded their judgement is. They need a law in order to do what is morally right. It shows that their mentality is so ingrained in their minds that it is like breathing. To change such a mentality is very hard and takes a lot of time. Today, I’m not sure if rioting and violence will change this sort of mentality. Yes, people deserve to express their anger but I don’t think it will really thaw those hearts of stone. I think it is those people that need to be worked on the most.
The thing that stuck out to me the most from the discussion we had was the point that Paul made about feeling indifferent and having those muted emotions. I don’t think I would’ve picked up on this if it wasn’t mentioned. When I read the letter I don’t think I was even interested or engaged in it. I wasn’t frustrated, angered or saddened by it at all. I didn’t feel anything. I was indifferent. Yesterday I blamed it on my lack of knowledge and exposure but really I didn’t care enough. I’ve never made the effort to learn about what has been happening and I have not watched the news or read any news articles about the current contact since learning about what happened. I know about it and I know I should care but it doesn’t translate from my head to my heart. I think this just goes to show my indifference to the situation. I think the scariest part is that I don’t even feel terrible about it or want to change. I want to stay in my little bubble of ignorance.
When we watched the video I couldn’t help but admire the courage of all the young people advocating for their rights. They had to go to jail and face the police yet they still pressed for change. It makes me wonder how they went through all that while I on the other hand just want to hide away from all of it.
After reading the letter from Birmingham Jail, it was a real wake up call to the current state of my heart. The words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” really stuck with me after our discussion. In yesterday’s reflection I wrote that the things I see on the news feel like they are happening in a completely different world from mine, and therefore don’t really affect me. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I do not care about these issues as much as I should. I live in a relatively small bubble of a world in Richmond Hill and London. I barely leave my home in these times of quarantine. The issues I face on a daily basis differ vastly from the issues of others around the world. This however does not mean that the issues I do not face are of less importance, if anything the issues others face are more important than mine as people struggle for basic necessities.
I wonder what has caused my heart and the hearts of many other youth to become numb to these obviously horrible things happening around the world. Is it the overflow of information that we have become so accustomed to? Many youth my age spend hours on one social media platform just to go the next once they get bored of the previous one. One particular social media app that I found had a captivating effect on my mind was the well known Tik Tok. The first couple times I went on Tik Tok I was just sucked into it. Video after video popped up and I could not stop watching. “Just one more” would continuously be in my mind, constantly searching for another funny video. We just see so many things throughout the course of a day that it is easier to forget about things that should bother you.
Have we become desensitized to all of this? I can’t help but feel a bit hopeless when seeing some of the stuff on the news. Thoughts like, “That sucks but what can I do? I can barely help myself.” Perhaps this is the reason why my generation is so drawn towards these social media apps. To distract ourselves from the hopelessness and despair we can feel when we look at the world.
This is a post in a series of reflections for the Black Lives Matter movement. To read other reflections, please go to the Black Lives Matter page.