Penguin Moderns: ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ by Martin Luther King Jr. ****

I received the wonderful boxed collection of the new Penguin Moderns series for my birthday, and have decided to read and review them in order.  The first book in the collection, and therefore my first review, is black rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.  The blurb states that this ‘landmark missive from one of the greatest activists in history calls for direct, non-violent resistance in the fight against racism, and reflects on the healing power of love.’  Despite its being written in 1936, in the margins of a newspaper in Alabama, it still seems incredibly current in the issues and widespread disparity which it addresses.

9780241339466‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ was written as a ‘response to eight white clergymen in Alabama, who argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought in the courts – not the streets’.  Whilst discussing at the beginning of his letter why he finds himself in Alabama, King writes: ‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…  I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and voices.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’  He has such compassion for those who feel they have been forced to fight for their rights as citizens: ‘It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.’  King goes on to say: ‘We know through painful experience that freedom is never inherently given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’

Along with the issues which King is currently fighting for from his prison cell, he sets out the historicity of black people, and the glaring lack of freedom which they have in the United States: ‘The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.’  King poses many interesting questions and comparisons upon what makes a law ‘just’ or ‘unjust’, and the terrible things which he has had to face as a black man in a segregated society.

In conclusion to his highly respectful, engaging, and insightful letter, King muses that his creation of the piece was a direct consequence of his being imprisoned: ‘Never before have I written so long a letter.  I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time.  I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?’

The second piece in this collection, ‘The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life’, was delivered as a sermon in Chicago in April 1967.  This follows on from the disappointment with the church which he says he has in ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’, when the ‘white church’ is happy enough to sit back and not get involved in the plight of fellow Christians.  The sermon has been transcribed from a recording, and was delivered under the premise that ‘if life itself is to be complete, it must be three-dimensional’.  Circumstantially, this piece is very involved with Christianity.  King’s faith is a constant throughout both of these pieces, but it is more explicitly depicted in this second piece.

Throughout this collection, King’s words are searching and intelligent.  The pieces here are moving, and ought to be read by everyone, regardless of their race or creed.  The proposals which King gives, and the ideas which he thoughtfully discusses, could serve to make our world a better, and more peaceful, place.

King inspires throughout; he shows that a single voice has the ability to change the way in which people act, and challenge how we view one another.  I shall end this review with an incredibly powerful and empowering fragment taken from ‘The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life’: ‘Too many Negroes are ashamed of themselves, ashamed of being black.  A Negro got to rise up and say from the bottom of his soul, “I am somebody.  I have a rich, noble, and proud heritage.  However exploited and however painful my history has been, I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.”‘

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2 thoughts on “Penguin Moderns: ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ by Martin Luther King Jr. ****

  1. This does sound very inspiring! I’ve been intrigued by this series, and have a handful, but haven’t quite understood what the scope of it all is.

    • The scope appears to be entirely random to me; a lot of the collections of short stories have been taken from longer Penguin publications. I think this randomness makes it such a fun series to read through; I know there have been, and will be, a few titles I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise, but it’s making me feel as though I’m reading more widely.

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