Letters From a Birmingham Jail

“While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”” Dr. M.L. King Jr.”

For those of you who don’t know, when Dr. M.L. King Jr. was in Birmingham for the protests there, he was arrested and put in jail.   While he was in jail he received some letters from fellow pastors that he was called to answer.   We’re going to take a look at some of what he wrote – it’s powerful.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is sitting in jail. He’s not in jail for something most people would say is really a crime. He’s in a jail because he was doing things that made the people in the government uncomfortable. What did he do?

He protested with many of his supporters and they were looking for two relatively simple things:

Chairs in a restaurant. What? They were protesting that the local restaurants were not allowing them to eat like the white people were. Huh? Let’s say that there’s a diner, a relative small, hole in the wall kind of diner. There are 8 tables with 4 seats at each table. The math isn’t hard. Capacity is 32. Well, a large majority of restaurants in Birmingham were either posting signs that say “no blacks allowed” or they were watching the number of people that were in the diner and were adjusting the “seating available sign” depending on whether it was white people or people of color who wanted to come in and eat.

So, if I, a middle class, relatively middle aged, white man walked in and wanted to be seated and there were 3 empty tables, it would be, “Right this way and welcome to Joe’s Diner.”

But if my friend, LeMarr, walked in with three of his black friends and wanted to eat dinner there and there were 2 empty tables (I’m sitting at the other one), they would be told that they couldn’t be served. The more polite restaurants might say, “Our last two tables are already reserved.” (Even though they weren’t). Most of them would say, “No blacks allowed” or “we don’t serve colored people.”

Just as you take a bite into your fresh hot juicy burger, your friend and his buddies shuffle off out the door to try to find somewhere to get some food. How does your burger taste now?

Dr. King felt that this was wrong. Many others in Birmingham felt this was wrong and it was something they felt they needed to do something about. This is part of the struggle that led some of the religious leaders in the black churches in Birmingham to urge Dr. King to join them.

So we’ve got chairs in a restaurant, or more accurately, the refusal of white restaurant owners to serve black people food. Issue #1

Issue #2 Employment. Segregation in employment. Once again, there’s two main ways this was accomplished:
1. Job requirements – An employer might put something “up” about the position they were looking to fill and either make the posted requirements too high. “Assistant Sanitation Technician” might be required to have a high school diploma. What is a sanitation technician? It’s someone who operates a broom for 8 to 10 hours a day.
2. “Bold Statement” on the front door of the business. “We will not employ blacks.” I can’t imagine what it would feel like to walk up to a business, believing that you could do the job, you could make the place, in some small way, better and you don’t even make it to the front door and you see the sign that says, “No Blacks Allowed.” Talk about a blow to your self esteem.

Just an aside, I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a minor in History. So what? I’d like to think it makes me sort of barely kind of close to the middle of the road. I know (or knew) more history than some people, but way less than is required to be considered an expert in that field.

I’m currently at 609 words and I really want to keep it between 400 and 600 words, so we’re going to wrap this up for today. I really hope, to have Part 2 up as soon as possible.

Three main words of focus next time:
• Your
• Unwise
• Untimely

Thanks for reading, stay tuned.

Tom

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