Thoughts: Letter from Birmingham Jail

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here are a few of my favorite quotes from his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The letter was written while Dr. King was in prison for joining nonviolent protests, and he wrote it in response to criticism from eight white clergymen in the area who argued against the methods Dr. King was encouraging.

I’m also including a link, both to the Letter, and to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that has become so famous. Please take a few minutes to celebrate this holiday by reading the words of the man we’re celebrating. You can leave your own favorite quotes in the comments, if you’d like.

Wikipedia article: Letter from Birmingham Jail

Text (pdf): Letter from Birmingham Jail

Text: “I Have a Dream”

My own favorite quotes:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“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 strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either distructively [sic] or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill-will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work 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, and forever realize 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.”

“But they [those ostracized for joining nonviolent protest] have gone with the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

“Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But not [sic] I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more so to use moral means to preserve immoral ends…. T.S. Eliot has said that there is no greater treason than to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

“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 the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” ♦


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