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Freedom From Terror: MLK JR’s Legacy

“Your father and his brother, the mayor, came into the kitchen with a rope. They said a black man had raped a white woman and they were going out hunting for him. I was terrified.”

Until I was an adult, my mother had told me nothing about her dashing, handsome husband, my birth father.

She asked me not to look for him because he was “dangerous.” I honored her request until I was forty-seven years old, when I searched for and found my father, an old man living in South Georgia.

Mom was a beautiful, small town Northern Pennsylvania school teacher who had spent years caring for her sick mother. He, a charming Southern soldier on leave, had swept her off her feet. They married on a whim. On their honeymoon, he took her to visit his traditional, southern family where she discovered his true identity.

With a flare towards the romantic, mom picked her china pattern, ‘The Georgian’ by Homer Laughlin,  learned to make Southern Biscuits, got on a train back to Pennsylvania and seldom saw the man she married until after WWII.

He returned to discuss divorce, disown me, and disappear. He never appeared in our family story until I found him in his kitchen forty-seven years later.

“I always wondered what happened to you, but I never did anything about it.” sad words from my elderly father, as I sat at his knee bawling.

We spoke on the phone several times and then three months later he died. The end.  Yet my work was just beginning. I needed to forgive the trauma and loneliness, depression and anger that remained in me.

When I read this article, I remembered him again and thought about the terror he was responsible for in that Southern town so many years ago.


Happy Birthday, Rosa

Booking photo of Parks

What is this demure, lovely young lady doing in a jail “booking” photo?


Rosa Parks Biography – Facts, Birthday, Life Story – Biography.com.

Spirited Letter from a Slave to His Master 1865

English: Family on Smith's Plantation, Beaufor...

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In 1865, P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee,  wrote to his former slave, Jourdan Anderson, coaxing him to come back to work on his farm for wages.

Jourdan, who, since being emancipated, had moved to Ohio, found paid work as a stableman, and was now supporting his family, responded elegantly by dictated letter.  The letter was published in the Aug. 22, 1865 issue of the New York Daily Tribune. As far as can be researched, this is a true story, about real people and events.

I hope you read and enjoy this letter! Written with ironic humor, it gives fabulous insight into the sharp mind of one former slave.

Letters of Note: To My Old Master.




Image by talkoftomatoes via Flickr

Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...
Cover via Amazon

My Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother, renown for her sweet nature, is nevertheless also known for saying, “I wouldn’t believe it even if I did see it!”. She would famously say this to her highly opinionated husband, Grandpa Harry, who,  an acquaintance once told me, “No offense, Mary, but he was a miserable ole Piss Ant”.

He died when I was one year old, and loved me a lot.  My mom treasured memories of both her Mother and Father, and remembers Grandpa Harry saying, “You can get more flies with honey than with vinegar”. Hmm…Piss ant, Fly trap…?

Which brings me to the dilemma, literally, the word, “dilemma”.

How many of us in North America were taught to spell the word, Dilemma, as “dilemna”? Do you know why?

There is a fascinating history on Worldwidewords.org website which I link to below. My theory is that the mistake grew out of  common spelling mistakes in older literature read during the 1800’s. What do you think?

Every time I write the word, I consciously remind myself to add two “m’s” not an “m” and an “n”.

But, this in not my biggest grammar shock in recent years.

Since I discovered that delicious coffee drink, Espresso, a few years ago, I’ve been calling it, “Expresso“.

Some of my friends may have noticed but were too polite to correct me, or didn’t think it mattered.

Last year during our Sabbatical, my husband noticed the spelling on his favorite coffee shop, and pointed out that Espresso is not spelled with an “x”.

I assumed it was an anomaly, but as I looked at coffee shops around Colorado Springs, was amazed to see every shop advertised “Espresso”.

“It must be a Colorado thing,” I thought to myself.

To my surprise, as we traveled East, even Ithaca, New York, just a short hop away from New York City serves “Espresso”.

So, at 63, I was forced to admit, what the rest of the world already knew, “Expresso”, is in fact “Espresso” even in Italy. (I looked it up), and I’ve been mistaken since my love affair with “espresso” began in Singapore twenty years ago.

And, incidentally, there is no basis for spelling dilemma with an “n”.

When I asked my husband how he would spell it, he led with an “n”, and wouldn’t take my word for it, but consulted his Oxford Dictionary and then his 1950’s high school dictionary just to “make sure”. That’s how deeply ingrained some beliefs can be.

Firmness is a trait I’ve always valued in myself and others, but stubbornness is a weakness I find difficult to handle.

When facts are presented that contradict my long-established beliefs, I try to ponder them.

I also have a very strong Faith,  but I don’t claim faith dependent on erroneous belief.  The Holy Books of my faith help me understand God whom I love and who loves me.  They are books of faith and fact. I believe they are revealed so people can know God; a loving and purposeful “gift”. I don’t argue over them.

My personal Faith is not threatened by change, but rather emboldened by it’s ability to keep pace with the changing world.

Dilemna” and “Expresso”, though just mis-spelled words, aren’t that easy to change in my thinking.

As a Christian I think of practices that are not taught in the Bible but are an integral part of some Christian cultures, and as such are difficult to change: Politely avoiding talk about child abuse vs. Caring for the abused child; Failure to confront Racist views (People who don’t speak English well, Muslims, etc.); Overly valuing a  Work Ethic vs. Caring for the worlds’ disadvantaged.

But, change is in the air, as we listen and learn from one another and from God. I have hope that we can learn to spell our lives in a different way.



“Kick a Jew Day” Racism in CNY: Our Son’s Nightmare

Posted by Permission: When we moved to Central NY from South East Asia in the early 90’s, we were naive about racism in the US, believing that it was a ‘southern thing’, and long in the past to boot.

Our handsome, brown, adopted son soon found out differently. He was called “nigger”, and reviled as “black” by school kids, some of whom were from Christian families (his alleged friends) and worst and most hurtful this was tolerated by at least one teacher.

Imagine sending our excellent little athlete and young man to school and Sunday School to hear taunts of “you’ll never get a girlfriend, because you’re “black”, “don’t play with that “black kid”, “when are you going home (to your real country)”?

To our lasting regret, our vibrant son withdrew in silence to his room, and I was so overwhelmed by depression during those years, that his father and I were just vaguely aware of his suffering. In retrospect, in raising a teenage boy, we would have often visited our son in that room and caused a ruckus that might have changed a few paradigms among the very ignorant and downright racist Christians.

Eventually, ‘it’ become so flagrant in the public high school, that someone spit and drew Nazi signs on the locker our son shared with a half Jewish boy, and in the boys’ bathroom our son found a carving saying, “Nigger get out”.  Since our son was the only boy of color in his high school at that time, he knew who the “nigger” was.

We did take action at that point, and at first the all white faculty and staff were in frank denial and unbelief! “Not here”!  Well, that’s what we thought..but we were the “privileged” white family who were able to bear witness to this tragedy.

What about the suffering of hundreds and thousands of Black families whose children bear these comments everyday from “nice,” white, children and teens? No one ever finds out about it, certainly not the white families who somehow are perpetuating racism.

Are they teaching it to their children? Yes, some are. Like the teacher who wouldn’t let his child date our son because of his color. Well, that’s his preference, and I’m sad that I just now found out about that. Probably others are using racist terms in their homes.

But, I suspect there are many more who are just not talking about racism because they, like us, truly believe it is a thing of the past. At least that’s what people say to me. These people are just not talking to Black people or certainly not listening.

I bring up the issue of racism with Black people wherever I go all over this country and when I tell them that many, if not most White people don’t believe it is a problem any more, there is always the same sad, nod and words to the effect of, “Oh, it exists, It happens to me everyday!”

Our son tells me now that people don’t gang up on him any more because he’s Black.  Just the other day a group of men gathered around him and prevented him from going into a club in Ithaca, NY calling him a “Mexican”!

For More read below:


Dr. MLK Jr’s, Letters from a Birmingham Jail

For Years, I have wanted to read the book containing Dr. King’s Letters From a Birmingham Jail. I’m posting portions of his letters from this collection today in hopes that others like me, fifty years late, may have that same privilege.

Liberation Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, ©2004
© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail”
16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling
my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and
ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time
for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for
constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are
sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and
reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the
view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with
headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South,
and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff,
educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in
Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were
deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I,
along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have
organizational ties here.
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
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.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to
say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am
sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals
merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that
demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white
power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine
whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all
these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this
community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly
record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts.
There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any
Liberation Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, ©2004
© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions,
Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage
in good faith negotiation.
Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic
community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for
example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend
Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a
moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the
victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.
As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep
disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby
we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and
the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self
purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are
you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided
to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is
the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be
the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on
the merchants for the needed change.
Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we
speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the
Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off,
we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could
not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this
end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt
that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a
better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct
action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a
community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to
dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the
work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of
the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive,
nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a
tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the
unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent
gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of
prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will
inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too
long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have
taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration
time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration
must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we
feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr.
Liberation Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, ©2004
© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to
maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the
futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees
of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without
determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups
seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up
their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than
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.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The
nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but
we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is
easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have
seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;
when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;
when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage
of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your
speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public
amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when
she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning
to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an
unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old
son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a
cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your
automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by
nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle
name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and
mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night
by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to
expect next, and are 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. There
comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into
the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
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, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us
consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying
others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first
to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.
Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine
that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just
or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust
Liberation Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, ©2004
© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas:
An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts
human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes
are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator
a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the
terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou”
relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only
politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said
that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful
estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the
Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they
are morally wrong.
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a
numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on
itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a
minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of
being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the
legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected?
Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming
registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of
the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be
considered democratically structured?
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been
arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an
ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used
to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate
evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who
breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I
submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly
accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its
injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced
sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on
the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who
were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to
certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because
Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive
act of civil disobedience.
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. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and
comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to
the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious
Liberation Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, ©2004
© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must
confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have
almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward
freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is
more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension
to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal
you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can
set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who
constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from
people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the
purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously
structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would
understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an
obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive
and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually,
we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the
surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and
dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all
its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its
exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned
because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed
man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning
Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the
act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning
Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated
the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed,
it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the
quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to
the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All
Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you
are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish
what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” 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. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful
words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human
progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to
be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social
stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.
Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into
a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial
injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Liberation Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, ©2004
© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that
fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the
fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of
complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained
of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a
few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because
in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The
other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is
expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest
and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration
over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have
lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the
white man is an incorrigible “devil.”
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do
nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the
more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of
the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.
If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced,
be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble
rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to
support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and
security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening
racial nightmare.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually
manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has
reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be
gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black
brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the
United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial
justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily
understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments
and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages
to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed
emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a
threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have
tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of
nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to
think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an
extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and
pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice:
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an
extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin
Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will
stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln:
“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to
be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be
extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be
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extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on
Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same
crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their
environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose
above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative
I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic;
perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor
race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer
have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I
am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this
social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big
in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden
and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others
have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach
infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.”
Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the
moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.
Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with
the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful
of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend
Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service
on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill
College several years ago.
But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed
with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something
wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured
in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as
the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery,
Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white
ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have
been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its
leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent
behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious
leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would
serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped
that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a
desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare:
“Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the
midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the
sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty
struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are
social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit
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themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction
between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern
states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful
churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her
massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people
worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped
with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion
call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men
and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of
the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep
disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in
the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I
see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through
social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians
rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not
merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat
that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in
power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the
peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a
colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in
commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and
example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with
an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the
presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s
silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not
recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of
millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to
the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual
church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am
thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from
the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They
have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have
gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with
us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow
ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their
witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled
times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.
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© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the
church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the
outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will
reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is
freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before
the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words
of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two
centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the
homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a
bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could
not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred
heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled
me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and
“preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had
seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly
commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here
in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if
you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as
they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I
cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In
this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To
preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that
nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to
make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is
just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr.
Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany,
Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial
injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for
the wrong reason.”
I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their
sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great
provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with
the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the
agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered
Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up
with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded
with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my
soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the
gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and
willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited
children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the
American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our
nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their
formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious
time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable
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© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters,
think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable
impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my
having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. 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. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon
pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities,
and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our
great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Published in:
King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” In Why We Can’t Wait, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr., 77-
100, 1963.



Talking Politics and Black Issues at IHOP

An IHOP restaurant in Poughkeepsie, New York

I was in Alexandria, VA, yesterday and I went to IHOP for brunch by myself. As I sat waiting in the foyer beside a black woman named Ti we struck up a conversation and invited each other to sit together when one of us got a seat.

IHOP was such a random choice, but it was the closest, least expensive in my daughter’s neighborhood and, coinciding with Dr. MLK Jr. holiday,  the place was packed. Ti and I began shyly at first, I prayed that I could talk with her about being black on this day of all days. Then we made our pact, “I’ll invite you to sit with me if you get seated first and vice versa!”

She was a regular, but I got seated first, she had her special Ethiopian waitresses that immediately hovered over us pouring extra strong coffee, her specialty “mine too!” We were set for a good visit!

I began, as I have found it necessary in conversations with African Americans, “So, I like Obama, tell me how you think he’s done so far.”

Ti: “Let me begin by saying, I vote Democrat, but I think like a Republican.”

Me: “Hm, what do you mean?”

Ti: “Well, Democrats are always fighting between themselves and not accomplishing anything. Republicans swoop in and get things done while we’re still fighting.”

“Obama is a passionate man, a thoughtful man, but before Tucson, we lost sight of that man, we saw him again in Tucson.”

We talked a bit about Health Care and about our views, and then I turned the conversation to Race.

She told me that she has worked for the Federal Government for over 30 years and faces racism every day from her supervisors. Her way of dealing with it is head on. She’s not to blame for the color of her skin, but she sure isn’t going to take any abuse because of it. She always stands up for herself when she feels people looking down on her or her family for their race

She gave me an example of taking her grandson to the store and giving him money to buy something. She would watch as he went to the cashier, to see how he was treated. “When, not if”, he was disrespected, she would go up to the cashier and demand an apology or she would report them to their manager and expect they would be fired.

“That’s the way it is”, she told me sadly.

I told her my background story, with evidence that my father was most likely KKK, and how I wanted to see a Black man elected president in my lifetime to undo some of my father’s family’s’ legacy. I apologized.

“It’s not your fault”, she said. But I never tire of offering my olive branch. It’s the least I can do, but I can do more.

Like strike up a conversation on MLK Jr. holiday and other days and talk frankly about Black Issues, Black and White, talking about race together.  I try to go a little deeper with any person of color in my path who has the time: taxi cab and bus drivers, anyone I have a chance to talk with for more than five minutes. I rarely hesitate, and I’ve rarely been rebuffed.

Each Black person I’ve been privileged to converse with over the years has had their own unique story. What is similar, they’ve all agreed  that they want White people to bring up race!! They aren’t going to, but they want us to do it.

I would add, if we can do it without being defensive.

I always start with saying something good about Obama and asking their opinion. I guess it would be more difficult if you genuinely don’t like Obama. Please don’t begin a conversation if you intend to argue about him.

I consider Racism a sin so vile in our country’s history, I’ve made great efforts to surmount my political barriers so I can talk about race with a pure conscience. What do you think about it?