REVIEW: Letter from Birmingham Jail

Hello my lovely bookish friends. I have fallen very behind with my blogging recently (apologies) and I have a pile of 16 books sitting on my desk staring mournfully at me just waiting for me to write about them.

These include four children’s books, one travel book, three books of poetry, seven novels and this: Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King.

This book is the first in a collection of 50 Penguin Modern Classics that I treated myself to a few months ago. It includes the letter – it’s a long one – and also a sermon entitled Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.

Martin Luther King wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail while incarcerated in Alabama in 1963 for taking part in non-violent protests in Birmingham against continued segregation in the USA.

The recipients of this missive were eight white Alabama clergymen who had issued a statement saying the fight against racial segregation should take place in the courts and not on the streets and questioned Dr King’s motives for being in Birmingham.

Dr King’s response is long, eloquent and was written around the edges of a newspaper, the only paper he could get hold of at the time.

Other than the ‘I have a dream’ speech, I have never read anything else written by Dr King and now I am wondering why not and shall be seeking to find some more of his writing.

His response to the clergymen who criticised him is balanced, clear and puts forwards arguments that still resonate today.

Why, when America continued to fail in paving the route to non-segregation, should he have to sit still and wait?

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham,” he says. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In his letter, Dr King claims Birmingham, Alabama is ‘probably the most segregated city in the United States’ and says its brutality is well known.

His poignant words describe the treatment of non-whites in the USA and their struggle for equality. He speaks of the many attempts to rectify the situation in other ways before resorting to non-violent protest and of the fight not only against those who were strongly opposed to ending segregation but also his confusion about those who agreed segregation was wrong but who chose to stand by and do nothing to further the fight for equality.

How sad is it that more than 50 years after his assassination and 60 years after he wrote this letter there is still the need for education and tolerance and the fight to end racism is still a long way off?

Is this taught in schools yet? Certainly when I did O-level 20th century political history (ok it was 40 years ago) there was no mention of Dr King and the human rights movement in the syllabus. And there should have been.

The second part of this small book is his sermon, which was first delivered in Chicago in April 1967, one year before his death.

I have to say I do not follow any particular religion but again his words have such resonance.

He argues that to live a complete life a person must do three things; they must firstly love themselves and allow themselves to be who they are. Secondly they must have a conscious concern for the welfare of others and thirdly they must love God.

His writings are so clear and easy to absorb and he puts forward his argument without any sense of bitterness, which considering what he’s fighting for is reall no mean feat.

These small Penguin Modern Classics contain a vast array of topics and authors from Dorothy Parker, Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck to Chinua Achebe, Primo Levi James Baldwin. I am looking forward to reading them all and I am also looking forward to finding some more of Martin Luther King’s speeches and writings to enjoy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: