King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice
Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change
On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.
Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.
In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.
King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”
The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”
Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.
“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”
King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”
Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.
Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.
“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.
“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”
Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”
But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.
Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.
Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.
“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”
Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.
Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.
“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”
Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.
“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”
Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.
Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.
That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.
He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.
It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.
Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.
“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”