David R. Henderson  

Letter from Birmingham Jail

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With Martin Luther King day being celebrated tomorrow, it's appropriate to read or reread his "Letter from Birmingham Jail,'' written in April 1963. Some powerful passages are below.

On why he went to Birmingham even though he wasn't from Birmingham (answering the charge that he was an outsider):

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

On why he doesn't give the new administration in Birmingham time to act:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

On the rightness of wrongness of breaking laws:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."

On the idea that he should be patient:

I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.

By the way, my favorite quote to counter this, which was also a favorite of the late Murray Rothbard, is from the famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison:

Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.

On the charge that he is an extremist:

So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

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CATEGORIES: Regulation

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Roshawn writes:

I've just finished reading the entire letter. To do so, just type "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in Google and you'll find it in pdf format.

I must say, Dr. King's words are incredible. He tried to stand for right however he could, and he also tried to inspire others to do the same. If we would only have the passion and desire he had--to actually stand for what's right because it's right and to call evil by it's right name--this country would be a much better place. I hope that we all strive to do as this man did.

God Bless.

lorenzo milloy writes:

it took a long time

Les writes:

Martin Luther King's letter is inspiring. But, despite the election of our first multi-racial president, there is still a ways to go before Reverend King's dream will be fulfilled.

First, Reverend King stood for full equality, not affirmative action that favors one race over other races. But affirmative action and racial quotas still prevail, rather than full equality.

Second, the white vote split, with large percentages of white voters for Obama and large percentages of white voters for McCain. This implies that whites to a large extent have overcome racial prejudice.

But blacks voted overwhelmingly for Obama, and hardly at all for McCain. This implies that blacks still have a long way to go in overcoming racial prejudice against whites.

Sanity Personified writes:

As MLK was a communist and plagiarist, it's odd to see praise for him from a libertarian academic. Also, one wonders whether his explicitly Christian rhetoric would receive praise had it come from, say, Pat Robertson.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Sanity Personified,
If you reread my piece above, you'll note that there was not one single piece of praise for MLK. Instead, I praised passages from his powerful letter. I think it would be more helpful to discussion if you noted any of those passages with which you disagree and why you disagree.
I'm not positive that MLK was a communist although it's pretty clear he was a plagiarist. It's also pretty clear that the passages I quoted were his and his alone. But what you'll see as you read my blog posts is that I want to separate the wheat from the chaff. I want to take the things that are valuable and discard the things that are not. If we can learn from MLK, then that's great.
Whether I would have praised Christian rhetoric coming from Pat Robertson would have depended on what he expressed with his Christian rhetoric. If he had used it, say, to advocate not bombing innocent people in Iraq or Afghanistan, then, yes, I certainly would have considered praising it.

dearieme writes:

Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice. And as for plagiarism, few seem to have minded JFK's plagiarism, nor that FDR plagiarised his fear of fear itself shtick.

Joshua Holmes writes:

King supported affirmative action.

The GOP used dog-whistle racism as part of its Southern Strategy for most of the last couple of decades. Blacks don't vote for the GOP because the GOP campaigned against blacks. Google "Southern strategy", "Reagan in Philadelphia", and "Willie Horton".

Marc Resnick writes:

We have learned a lot about human cognition since the 1960s that would have served MLK better in his approach. When people make decisions, big or small, their first impression becomes anchored and is tough to overturn even in the face of strong evidence. And if that impression is stated publicly the effect is even stronger. If the decision maker acts on the decision, it is stronger still.

So MLK should have thought of a way to get the incoming Birmingham administration to do something publicly, no matter how small, in support of his movement. It didn't even have to be directly relevant to equal rights. That could have come later. Instead, he forced their first act to be directly opposed and guaranteed that they would continue to oppose him.

Perhaps this worked for gaining national attention, but not for influencing the local pols. Of course, MLK did not have the benefit of the past 40 years of cognition research.

johnleemk writes:


Studies which account for political affiliation suggest that whites actually disproportionately voted for McCain. When you consider that blacks have traditionally voted for the Democratic party in large numbers (

Zac writes:

Dr King said that "something is wrong with capitalism" and claimed, "There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism." In his defense, though, he did not embrace communism because he feared it was inextricably tied to totalitarianism. and of course, he disliked its atheism.

Not that that has much to do with the blog post. As we can see Dr King wrote a lot of really good, inspirational, libertarian-sounding stuff. Really, the philosophy of egalitarianism and adherence to Christian dogma is incompatible with freedom, thus resulting in these two sides.

Les writes:

johnleemk: I don't understand your point. If whites voted "disproportionately" (whatever that means) for McCain, then how did blacks vote for Obama, if not far more "disproportionately?"

As best I can understand, you are actually (but perhaps unintentionally) arguing on my side, not against me.

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