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Letter from Birmingham Jail

by Martin Luther King

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Anyone younger than a baby boomer has real trouble grasping how much racism existed in America before the civil rights movement. It is difficult for me to believe that my parents were alive when black men could not play professional baseball, when people were assigned to drink from different water fountains based on the color of their skin.

Even in my lifetime, white men excluded others from their clubs and their hotels. Can that be? Such an attitude sounds as ancient as paganism today.

This letter, written by Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was in jail in 1963 for participating in a non-violent demonstration in Birmingham, eloquently reminds us that racism thrived in the second half of the twentieth century. Though it is evident from this letter that King is an uneven writer, his flashes of eloquence remind us that he was a masterful speaker. His eloquence is at a fever-pitch when he describes the injustices black Americans have faced:

“I guess 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, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; 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 part that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country 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’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

by Jeff Baldwin