"For years now," he wrote, "I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. . . . We have waited -- for more than 340 years -- for our constitutional and God-given rights."
King's letter is one of the most lucid and persuasive American essays of the 20th century in part because it is an impassioned statement of faith in America's fundamental decency. King understood the power of conscience in American history. He knew that Americans would respond to the indignity of discrimination if only they could be made to see it. Racism might run deep, but a love of liberty and a passion for fairness ran deeper still. This was not some Communist dictatorship or African police state, where dissidents simply vanished in the night. Here a dissident could speak and be heard -- even from a jail cell in Alabama.
To be black in 1963, King wrote in one heartrending passage, is to "suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky." It is to be "humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading 'white' and 'colored.' " It is "when your first name becomes 'n*****' and your middle name becomes 'boy.'. . . There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over. "
Only in form was King's letter addressed to the eight clergymen. In reality he was appealing to the tens of millions of white Americans he knew would rally to the cause of civil rights -- once they understood what was at stake.
"I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham," King wrote. "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. . . . We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands."
We know how the story ends. King was released. Birmingham was desegregated. The Civil Rights Act became law. King won the Nobel Prize. It is a shining chapter in history. Not black history, American history. Our history.
"When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters," wrote King on the last page of his letter, "they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thus carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers."
From those wells all of us draw, all 12 months of the year.