Any time is the right time to read Martin Luther King's 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail." But it pulses with special relevance during Black History Month.
We have fallen into the custom of treating this period as blacks' history month: four weeks set apart -- segregated, one might say -- for African-Americans to celebrate black heroes and recall black achievements. It has become a kind of calendrical quota -- 11 months of "regular" history, one month of black history. The result is a pervasive tokenism, with February becoming the month for black-themed lectures, concerts, and school assignments.
But as King would have been the first to insist, the history of blacks in America is not some detachable appendix to American history. It is American history. For all its dark and bloody episodes, it is the greatest success story of any black people, ever -- an ascent that can be comprehended only in the context of American values and traditions.
It was precisely those values and traditions to which King appealed in "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
"I am in Birmingham," he wrote, "because injustice is here."
So it was. Birmingham in 1963 was toxic with racism and segregationist to the core. Not long before, in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott and the desegregation of Little Rock's schools, 17 of its black churches had been bombed. Indeed, there had been more unsolved bombings of black homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the United States.
For months, local black leaders had been trying to negotiate an easing of Birmingham's unrelenting segregation. Finally, in early April, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a nonviolent protest. "We had no alternative," King wrote, "except to present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the . . . community."
What ensued was horrific. Birmingham's public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, ordered police to stop the marchers. Unarmed men, women, and children were beaten with nightsticks and attacked by snarling dogs. As television cameras recorded the brutality, fire hoses were turned on the demonstrators. Hundreds were arrested, including King himself.
Earlier that year, eight white Alabama clergymen had published an open letter in the Birmingham Post Herald. They warned that the SCLC's crusade would only inflame unrest, and urged a halt to the demonstrations, calling them "unwise," "untimely," and "extreme." Now, locked in solitary confinement, King replied.