King is waiting for his mug shot (left) in Montgomery, Alabama, after his 1956 arrest while protesting the segregation of the city's buses. His leadership of the successful 381-day bus boycott brought him to national attention. Right: In 1967, King serves out the sentence from his arrest four years earlier in Birmingham, Alabama. (The Life Images Collection)
King is waiting for his mug shot (left) in Montgomery, Alabama, after his 1956 arrest while protesting the segregation of the city's buses. His leadership of the successful 381-day bus boycott brought him to national attention. Right: In 1967, King serves out the sentence from his arrest four years earlier in Birmingham, Alabama. (The Life Images Collection)

On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself in solitary confinement in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail.  He had planned for months to be jailed there. But it wasn’t until Bull Connor gave the order earlier that day that he realized he’d be in solitary.

King had an abiding fear of solitary. A brooder by nature, he relied on the company of others to uplift him. Beyond that, there was the practical consideration of what Bull Connor would do if nobody was looking, especially given what he would do when somebody was. And King had been taken once from a Georgia jail in the middle of the night, straight-jacketed, and thrown in a paddy wagon to ride for hours and hours to who-knows-where.  That experience of “waiting and not knowing what you’re waiting for” continued to terrify him.

So he sat alone in jail, brooding. Despite all the planning, he had deep doubts about whether the Birmingham effort would be successful – and he needed a win. It had been six years since the successful protest of bus segregation in Montgomery landed him on the cover of Time.  Since then, direct action campaigns had limped along. The most recent one, in Albany, Georgia, had fizzled when the Albany sheriff turned out to be even more unflappable and strategic than King.

New, angry black voices were calling the dignified, non-violent Dr. King just one more Uncle Tom. And although every night King’s protest leaders fired up Birmingham’s black population in a local church, in the morning too few were willing to do what needed to be done: Go to jail. Maybe the time wasn’t right, King thought the night before he decided to break the law that would lead to his incarceration. He took a leap of faith.

Sometime during his isolation, a jailer slipped King a newspaper. In it was “A Call for Unity,” an editorial from eight local white clergymen.” The ministers condemned King and his “outside agitators” for stirring up trouble in Birmingham and encouraging people to break the law. Noting that a new mayor had just been elected, the ministers urged the black community to be patient. Give it time.

Reading that editorial, King’s brooding went up in the smoke of fury. When his lawyers arrived, he didn’t want to discuss the protest or bail money or Bull Connor. He wanted a pen and paper. For the next few days, he wrote that masterpiece of argumentation, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It’s worth remembering today.

The letter is the rhetorical equivalent of the iron fist in a velvet glove. King’s style is respectful to the point of obsequiousness, beginning with “My dear fellow clergymen,” and sprinkled throughout with deferential phrases like “I fear,” “I must confess,” and “lamentably.” But the substance of the letter systematically dismantles the sophistry of the “Call,” giving its authors the most gentlemanly imaginable dressing-down, and providing the diffident of his race and the apathetic of mine with an unforgettable come-to-Jesus.

To the outsider-butting-in charge, King responds,  “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. ... We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

To the charge that his “agitators” are stirring up trouble, he begins diplomatically. It’s “unfortunate” that these demonstrations are occurring, he concedes, but it’s “even more unfortunate” that the white power structure has left black people no alternative. The only gains ever made in civil rights, he points out, have required pressure. “Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

Then King took the glove off – just for a moment. Later, he would return to theoretical arguments, citing theologians and philosophers to bolster his points.  Later, he would remind those who scolded him for encouraging law-breaking that everything the Nazis did was legal; breaking an unjust law is a moral imperative.  Later, he would express his disappointment in “moderates” who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” who do nothing in the face of extreme atrocities (and call him extreme?), who blame the victim or the protester poking at the festering boil of racism rather than acting themselves to expose its oozing ugliness to “the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion.”

But in a single long sentence responding to the ministers’ advice to be patient, he gives his fury some rein. Grabbing his readership by the scruff of the neck, he rubs our collective noses in the raw reality of racism as it is experienced by its victims. Maybe it’s easy to wait, he writes, if you’ve never experienced segregation, but:

When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;

When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;

When you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;

When you 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 eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;

When you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?";

When you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;

When you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored";

When your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs.";

When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" —

When you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

In this single sentence (laid out here as a list), Martin Luther King Jr., lays bare the commonplace cruelty that was racism in this country for far too long, an evil to which the majority in this sweet land of liberty had turned a blind eye for over 300 years. As you run your finger down King’s litany of woe today, you can feel good about our progress since 1963 … until you get to the last “you,” the person the victim of systemic racism becomes, a person who is harried, haunted, at tiptoe stance, fearful and resentful, forever fighting off a sense of “nobodiness.”

That person still exists in America and, disproportionately, that person is black. What “White Only” signs and overt cruelty accomplished for the first 350 years of our history, generational poverty, implicit bias, and a creaking criminal justice system effectuate now. Maybe there was a time during Reconstruction when we could have got it right, made reparations, faced up to this original sin instead of burying it under the reluctance of a white power structure exhausted by war to engage in further conflict, the desire to be “one big happy (white) family” again.   

Now you have to wonder whether centuries of racism in America, like the rancid smell in the home of lifelong smokers, gets “in the walls” so deeply it can’t be eradicated. And lest we Montanans let ourselves off the hook – “We weren’t even a territory when this prejudice took root!” – we too are now enmeshed in King’s “single garment of destiny.” Nor is our own history unblemished. Today the only American demographic with a higher percentage than blacks living in poverty or in jail are Native Americans. We’ve got our own walls to clean in Montana. God knows neither we nor the rest of the nation can afford any new ones.

King closes his letter from the Birmingham jail expressing his hope for true equality in the language of time that he so often used: “someday” … “soon” … “at last.”   Nearly 51 years after his assassination, the honest answer to the yearning question behind that language is, lamentably, this: “Not yet.”

Mary Sheehy Moe retired from the Montana University System in 2010 and has since served on the Great Falls School Board and in the Montana Senate. She lives in Great Falls, where she is now a city commissioner.