Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Part III

January 22, 2009

This letter is pretty long, so I’m abridging it a bit, skipping the specifics about particular people and incidents in Birmingham (I prefer to discuss the theoretical points)…

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 individuals.

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. . . .  [W]hen 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.

Interesting observation, that those in power to oppress others rarely voluntarily give up that power.  That is the danger of putting too much power into the hands of a few.  They are quick to assure the rest of us that they have our good in mind, and they might mean it, but the power often proves too great a temptation (see Supreme Court, USA).  And it is rare that one turns back and releases the power to allow the disenfranchised to seek justice or govern themselves.  (I cannot help but recall The Lord of the Rings here on the tempting power-grab issue.)


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