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Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Why Letter from a Birmingham Gaol is Still Relevant

Ahed Tamimi and Martin Luther King

A simple message that is the slogan of the Black African refugees in Israel today
Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is one of the most important political statements to have been written.  No one who supports the fight of the oppressed against the oppressor can fail to be moved by it or to see its continuing relevance.

It is all the more remarkable because it came from someone who was seen by Black nationalists as compromised by his relationship to the Kennedy’s and the White American Democratic Establishment.  MLK was a pacifist whereas Malcolm X believed in responding with violence to violence. 

In his Letter MLK responds to the appeal of 8 white clergymen who criticised the resort to non-violent direct action saying ‘I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth’.  However King is all the more critical of them because of this. King writes about how You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.’ 

King goes through a litany of broken promises made by white liberals that they would effect changes such as the taking down of the humiliating racial signs that were still displayed in stores.  He went through all the injustices that Black people experienced, the bombings and murder of Black people. 
King responds to the charge that the direct action he proposed was untimely, that he should have given the newly elected Administration in Alabama time to act, that he should have had patience.  MLK’s response is as valid now as then:
16-year-old Ahed Tamimi in Israeli military court (Photo: Tali Shapiro/Twitter)
I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged group s 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 are more immoral than individuals.

This is the response to those who say that we must be wait and be patient and rely on the good will of the powerful to reform themselves.  MLK is saying that if we wait for the time when the privileged and powerful reform themselves we will be waiting forever because those who are born with privileges never give them up of their own accord.  We have to force them to disgorge their ill gotten gains.  That is the argument for BDS.

MLK deals with another argument of the rich and powerful namely that we must obey the law, even if it is wrong.  This is the ritual call of the Right to ‘respect’ unjust laws.  MLK responds by saying that we must distinguish between the just and unjust law:

"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 laws, and there are 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 when 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 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 and natural law. Any law that  uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.


Martin Luther King
King places this argument in the context of what he calls ‘moral law’ or ‘natural law before elaborating that it is a law that degrades or uplifts a human personality.  In simple terms does the law treat all people equally or is it an oppressive law.

Realising that talk of a moral or natural law is subjective, that different people are likely to have different views as to what constitutes morality, MLK makes it more tangible: 

Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, 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.
Israel also uses dogs against Palestinian (but never Jewish) demonstrators

MLK uses an analogy from Hitler’s Germany.  Today MLK would be termed an anti-Semite for making such comparisons!

‘We can never forget that everything 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. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.’

King explains that his worst enemy is not the racist but the White Liberal who tries to hold him back. 

I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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...’

Here we see a direct comparison with Palestine.  The so-called ‘peace process’ doesn’t talk about justice or a ‘positive peace’ but a peace that means the continuing of oppression by other means.
King also gave a message of hope:  ‘Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro.’
King confronted the accusation that many of us face, that he was an extremist.  Moderation being closely aligned with the existing order and the status quo.  King asks if Jesus too was an extremist.  One can generalise from this.  All those seeking change are ‘extremists’ – the Suffragettes or the Chartists were also considered ‘extreme’ by those who held power:

But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love?
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"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice?
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"Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?
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"I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist? –
"Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God." Was not John Bunyan an extremist?
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"I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience." Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist?   "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist?  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
King expresses his disappointment with the White Church:

LET me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been 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.

King observes how the white clergy have praised the very forces of law and order that set upon the civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama with extreme violence.  I am reminded of Obama, who rushed to condemn the killing of Police by a Black sniper in response to the deaths of Black people.  Obama didn’t however condemn the Police violence that led to the deaths of Michael Brown in Fergusson and Eric Garner in New York.

You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I don't believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don't believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys, if you would observe them, as they did on two occasions, refusing to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I'm sorry that I can't join you in your praise for the police department.’

The article below compares the lessons of MLK’s Letter from Alabama to Ahed Tamimi.  It is well worth reading.

Tony Greenstein
James North and Philip Weiss on January 15, 2018

In recent weeks, several people have said that the liberal indifference to Ahed Tamimi’s detention in an Israeli prison for slapping an occupying soldier on December 15 is reminiscent of the white liberals in Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1963. Today, you can give yourself no better political lesson than rereading that inspiring document of the American movement  for freedom.

King’s letter is an explanation of the need for “direct political action.” King addresses a group of white liberal ministers and rabbis who have said they’re against segregation but times are changing, so why do “extremist” black clergy have to risk a backlash with provocative demonstrations? King answers that time is neutral and won’t do anything on its own; blacks have waited for hundreds of years for some modicum of justice and learned that the privileged will never give up privilege without pressure. White businesses promised to remove humiliating signs directing blacks to segregated water coolers and bathrooms and never followed through, and meantime anti-colonial struggles in other countries have outpaced American change, and inspired blacks to dream of an equal future.

We need to ratchet up political tension so as to precipitate a crisis, King explained:
















[T]here is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. . . . we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

Liberal ministers and rabbis were a bigger obstacle to this process than outright racists, King said, because they defused that tension among progressives with “lukewarm acceptance.” In the distant past the church had ended infanticide and gladiators’ fights to the death, but now the church was ineffectual. King warned:

It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo [as to]. . . be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.
This is the only thing that Israel lacks - signs directing Jews and non-Jews because they don't need them
Some whites had walked in black people’s shoes and understood the “urgency of the moment,” King said, but the moderate ministers were blindly supporting order, however unjust.

You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes.

And he warned that the black community now includes many nationalists who advocate violence against Jim Crow.

The analogies of King in the Birmingham city jail to 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi in an Israeli jail are many. Occupied Palestinians have waited decades for justice as other struggles in the world have been successful. Palestinians have long been promised sovereignty and never gotten it. “Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber,” King writes, but Palestinians have seen their lands robbed year after year with no enforcement mechanism from the world. Many in the Palestinian community now advocate violence. But in their little village the Tamimi’s are part of a non-violent struggle against a violent occupation.

Ahed Tamimi caused tension– and a “crisis-packed” situation– when she slapped the soldier in her tiny village of Nabi Saleh on December 15, just hours after her cousin was maimed by another Israeli soldier.

But her weeks in jail are greeted with indifference or contempt by leftwing Israelis and American liberal Zionists, who tell us there must be equal sympathy for the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian children. While the U.S. press writes articles about Tamimi’s choice in clothing, suggesting her encounters were staged. These people rationalize Israel’s brutal policy of a “managed conflict” forever with “lukewarm acceptance.”

Some will say, what about Ahed’s slap? Wasn’t that violent? It was not. Violence entails the possibility of producing injury to another. Tamimi’s slap of a towering, heavily-armed soldier was merely an insult, and a resonant one. “We must see the need of having non-violent gadflies.” (And as for throwing stones, even the New York Times Magazine has justified that as a legitimate response to occupation).
King’s letter is a challenge to the indifferent who rationalize the status quo. Moral people — church people, political people — must either take action or support it, he said. Geography is no barrier. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is the most ringing line in the letter (which one of us used as an epigraph in his book against South African apartheid).

Today we revere King for precipitating radical political change in the U.S. and sacrificing his life to do so. The letter speaks to all who cherish the hope of ending other injustices. It is NOT meaningful as a nostalgic signpost of a huge battle our society won 50 years ago. It is ONLY meaningful as a signpost for what actions we should take today.

King ended his letter with a prayer. It is consciously a spiritual statement. Birmingham 1963 is the “eternal now of the letter, and the message passes from King’s soul to the reader right now. It addresses the struggle we all feel inside ourselves: It calls to the idealistic and motivated parts of our nature that see a way to address injustice, and against the lukewarm, timid despairing acceptance we feel in the face of huge odds.

For people who care about the Middle East, the letter can have only one meaning, to look on the lives of our brothers and sisters in Palestine and to hate the occupation and anything that rationalizes it. King tells us to be with Ahed Tamimi in her cold cell, and fight for her freedom.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was released from the Birmingham jail after 11 days. Ahed Tamimi, 16 years old, is still in an Israeli jail — 27 days later, and counting.

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