Letter from Birmingham Jail

April 16, 1963


While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here In Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I. compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. 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.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through an these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants — for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes bad been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves : “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic with with-drawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoralty election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-oat we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” 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 six-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 five-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 no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may won ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to ace the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “An Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this ‘hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to 6e solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At fist I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides-and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that an men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we viii be. We we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jeans Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some-such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a non segregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who ‘has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of Rio shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leader era; an too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Walleye gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it vi lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jai with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, ham and all over the nation, because the goal of America k freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if .you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handing the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in pubic. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face Jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My fleets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

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 k alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,


* AUTHOR’S NOTE: This response to a published statement by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray. the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) was composed under somewhat constricting circumstance. Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to. leave me. Although the text remains in substance unaltered, I have indulged in the author’s prerogative of polishing it for publication.

77 comments for “Letter from Birmingham Jail

  1. January 17, 2005 at 10:02 am

    As a visitor to the United States, I find myself learning many things about America for the first time. Dare I say it that Dr. King is one of the greatest Americans who has ever lived? Your nation should be proud of him. I was a little sad that he received no mention in church yesterday, but as a member of a Baltimore ward that was deliberately created to encompass both the black and white areas of the city I shall take comfort in the fact that actions speak louder than words. It is said that Sunday is America’s most segregated day; I am pleased to report that that is not the case in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Baltimore, MD (one of your nation’s most segregated cities). Happy MLK day.

  2. January 17, 2005 at 10:18 am

    Thanks much for posting that, Matt. Very moving.

  3. January 17, 2005 at 10:51 am

    One of the greatest prophetic statements of modern times, in the fullest sense of the word. Thanks for remembering Matt, and for posting this.

    Steadfastly pro-life in every way, MLK was a deeply, deeply flawed man, who was called to perform a work perhaps no other person–whether Christian, Mormon, agnostic, liberal, conservative, black or white–in America could have done at the time. Like all true prophets, he was, in his moment, indespensible, which invariably both infuriates and amazes all around him. There are many recollections of Martin Luther King, but none have ever struck me as powerfully as did RJ Neuhaus’s from First Things, here. His conclusion:

    “God writes straight with crooked lines, and he used his most unworthy servant Martin to create in our public life a luminous moment of moral truth about what Gunnar Myrdal rightly called ‘the America dilemma,’ racial justice. It seems a long time ago now, but there is no decline in the frequency of my thanking God for his witness and for having been touched, however briefly, by his friendship, praying that he may rest in peace, and that his cause may yet be vindicated.”

  4. Kaimi
    January 17, 2005 at 10:58 am

    This issue is always a bit delicate in my >50% African-American ward.

    Yesterday, in priesthood, one relatively new member asked if it was true that Utah had no MLK day. A (white) high priest answered quickly, and said that Utah did have an MLK day, and that Joseph Smith had sought to free the slaves. Our (black) bishop then said that people shouldn’t listen to evil rumors about the church, and that MLK was a great man. The combination of answers, many of them non-sequitur, seemed to work for the person who asked.

    But on the broader level —

    What do we, as members, do about historic LDS opposition to civil rights? What do we do about statements by Ezra Taft Benson that MLK was an evil communist? The strategy in my ward seems to be “avoid the issue.” Is there a better approach?

  5. January 17, 2005 at 11:29 am

    What do we do about statements by Ezra Taft Benson that MLK was an evil communist?
    We repudiate them.

  6. Adam Greenwood
    January 17, 2005 at 11:42 am

    His flaws were his own, but his virtues and his work were for the ages.

  7. January 17, 2005 at 11:46 am

    Ronan’s dead on, as usual.

  8. January 17, 2005 at 11:57 am

    Kaimi, I was my high school’s student representative on the Alpine School District board when the district was trying to decide whether to add MLK Day to the school calendar. Alpine covers Orem, Pleasant Grove, American Fork, Lehi, and the little towns around them. I can’t remember whether the year was 1988 or 1989, but I very vividly remember the committee meeting that discussed adding the day and cutting another holiday to make room for it: It came down to giving students a day off to honor King or to mark the start of the deer hunt.

    The reason the debate stuck in my mind is that although racism was clearly a factor — someone did say something like “We don’t have hardly any black kids, so why should we celebrate Martin Luther King?” — the discussion also asked whether it wouldn’t be more educationally significant to hold classes on that day that focused on the problems of racism and the legacy of the civil rights movement. I thought that was a very interesting proposal.

    The problem that occupied most of our time, however, was that canceling a deer hunt holiday would cause havoc especially in the more rural schools because of the number of teachers, students, bus drivers, and lunchroom workers who wouldn’t show up that day. I remember the debate, but don’t recall the outcome. I didn’t have a vote on board matters, but I did tend to speak up as an observer. I think I urged adding MLK Day to the calendar. (My one moment of press coverage as a student rep on the Alpine board was a front-page Daily Herald quote from a lively board meeting about sex ed policy. If someone has access to Herald archives and could look me up, I’d love to know what I said. “Chris Walton,” sometime in 1988-1989.)

    Another memory from my senior year in high school was an all-day student government conference at the Salt Lake County Building focused on racism. The last event of the day was a panel discussion about religion and racism, and there were four participants: A (white) member of the First Quorum of Seventy, a (white) Roman Catholic priest, a (black) Baptist minister, and a (white) Unitarian Universalist minister. (The other notable thing to me was that the UU minister was a woman, something I had not encountered before.) The LDS representative focused his remarks entirely on how the LDS Church welcomes everyone, regardless of race. The Catholic priest spoke more personally and theologically, using the disconcerting image of racism as a “snake” that challenged each of us from the inside, a sin that must be constantly wrestled with. Weirdly, I have no specific recollection of what the Baptist minister had to say. The UU minister quoted Malcolm X — whose autobiography my best friend was reading at the time, so I had just heard of him — and basically said racism is still a problem, right here in Utah (!), and that white people had to care about it personally and institutionally.

    After the event, I went up to the Seventy and asked him why he hadn’t talked at all about racism among Mormons and why he hadn’t even mentioned the 1978 revelation. (After all, we had just marked the tenth anniversary of that momentous change.) He kept on message: “Heavenly Father is no respecter of persons.” I told him about the kinds of things people in my ward said that suggested this message hadn’t quite come through yet: speculation about how long a “Lamanite” would need to be righteous before his skin turned “white and delightsome”; speculation about whether Africans had been less valiant in the War in Heaven, and had therefore earned a “lesser place” here on earth; seminary class discussions about why interracial dating was not pleasing to the Lord; a returning missionary who opened her talk one Sunday by saying how wonderful it was, after 18 months in Chicago, to look out and see so many “bright” faces, etc.

    I’m sure I came on a bit strong, but something about his evasiveness that day — and in the context of other religious leaders who at least acknowledged that racism was a problem that implicated them and me — left a very strong and unpleasant impression. I really felt very personally challenged that day, and although Times & Seasons isn’t the place for me to say so, it was one of the moments that really damaged my testimony.

  9. January 17, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    Adam: “His flaws were his own, but his virtues and his work were for the ages.”

    Yes. And it is so tragic that the normal human response is so often the reverse: to believe that the flaws of prophets and heroes and heroines, via adept psychologizing, reveal the true person, while their inspired works are made relative, subjective, incidental. (He founded a church. She saw God. He spoke truth to power. She stood for justice. Big deal! Tell us about again about the power struggle between Eliza and Brigham; that’s what we really want to hear about.)

    Ronan: “We repudiate them.”

    Also yes. (Or at least the “evil” bit. MLK was definitely turning more and more towards a socialist critique of American society and capitalism as part of his request for racial justice towards the end of his life, but there is no evidence that he himself ever embraced communism, much less supported communist causes. There were close associates of King who did–Stanley Levinson and Bayard Rustin–and its true that he was reluctant to eject them from his circle, but that’s not the same as the man himself joining the communist party. President Benson, like many thousands of others, apparently (and tragically) believed the smears spread by J. Edgar Hoover and others (including some jealous rivals within the civil rights movement) about King, smears that the best biographies of King, many of which are unsparing in examining his sexual immorality, have failed to demonstrate.)

  10. Nate Oman
    January 17, 2005 at 12:04 pm

    One might also point to the First Presidency Statement on Civil Rights, authored (I believe) by Hugh B. Brown and read over the pulpit in general conference. One of the unfortunately things about the priesthood ban is that it has the tendency to give greater prominence rhetroactively to the speculative theology used to justify it. (Although even here, one must acknowledge a certain amount of “official” theology on the priesthood ban.)

  11. January 17, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    There’s some discussion going on at Mormons for Equality and Social Justice about doing something about lingering Mormon racist folklore. The discussion is private (for now) so I won’t divulge their intentions, but one thing that has come out is the importance of individual members who are sensitive to this to make their feelings known. That is, should racist folklore ever come-up at church, rather than just sit there and grimace, make an effort to say something to counter it. It might also be opportune to inform church leaders of such ignorance, not to counsel them, but simply to let them know that these things sometimes get said and they are hurtful. But as I mentioned in my original comment, in Baltimore at least, the church seems to walk the walk (even if we are a little slack sometimes in talking the talk).

  12. January 17, 2005 at 12:17 pm

    Hugh B. Brown: [I]t is a moral evil for any person or group of persons to deny any human being the right to gainful employment, to full educational opportunity, and to every privilege of citizenship…. We call upon all men, everywhere, both within and outside the Church, to commit themselves to the establishment of full civil equality for all of God’s children.

    1. Hugh B. Brown, Conference Report (Oct. 1963): 91.

  13. Matt Evans
    January 17, 2005 at 12:22 pm

    Kaimi, I’m not familiar with the LDS church’s opposition to civil rights of which you write. The church repeatedly said it favored civil rights. Joseph Fielding Smith in 1958:

    “No church or other organization is more insistent than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that the Negroes should receive all the rights and privileges that can possibly be given to any other in the true sense of equality as declared in the Declaration of Independence. They should be equal to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They should be equal in the matter of education. They should not be barred from obtaining knowledge and becoming proficient in any field of science, art or mechanical occupation. They should be free to choose any kind of employment, to go into business in any field they may choose and to make their lives as happy as it is possible without interference from white men, labor unions or from any other source. In their defense of these privileges the members of the Church will stand.”

    Given that this is from pretty early in the civil rights era and is from JFS, of all people, what do you mean by the “historic LDS opposition to civil rights”?

    Kaimi and Ronan, as we now know that MLK was not involved with communist plots, we know Benson was wrong on the facts. There were many people of all stripes, including LDS, who recognized MLK’s great rhetorical and oratorical skills yet found him to be opportunistic and phony. Given the MLK repeatedly cheated on his wife, it’s not surprising that Benson believed the “Reverend” to be a charlatan.

  14. January 17, 2005 at 12:32 pm

    “Given the MLK repeatedly cheated on his wife, it’s not surprising that Benson believed…”

    MLK’s infidelities are as relevant to his greatness as Jefferson’s slaves are to his. That this facet of MLK would be tossed out as justification for ETB’s anticommunist fear of MLK seems particularly wrong on January 17th!

  15. Nate Oman
    January 17, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    Jefferson’s slaves and his treatment of them are relevent to his greatness. I personally have a fairly low opinion of the man. There is something deeply disturbing about a man who publically postured for his entire life on the importance of freedom while not only owning other human beings, but fathering children on his “property,” etc. Jefferson was unable to even fufill his ultimate pledge to manumit his slaves in his will because to do such would have required him to alter his consumption habits. It was much better to live it up on his mountain on borrowed money and then have his executors sell off his slaves (some of whom were quite possibly his own children or nieces and nephews) to pay the debts. At least someone like Washington actually ended up freeing his slaves.

    Jefferson at many levels was a thoroughly contemptible human being, the appearance of his face on the currency notwithstanding.

  16. January 17, 2005 at 12:45 pm

    I don’t think you are saying that MLK was a “charlatan”. He was morally flawed, for sure, perhaps deeply so, but his commitment to the principle he championed was authentic. I’m disturbed that a character assassination of King is so easy, when the same standards if held to other heroes would crucify them also: Joseph Smith not telling his wife that he was marrying other women, Ben Franklin’s famous sexual shenanigans. We forgive these men; let’s forgive King too.

  17. Adam Greenwood
    January 17, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    Shucks. I would like to defend Martin Luther King but not if it would implicate me in a defense of Jefferson. Well.

    How about this? Though it is certainly not surprising that President Benson held MLK’s grievous sins against him, being a contemporary and all, we are not contemporaries. We should view the man for what he stood for and for the public role he so well fulfilled, and leave his sins to be worked out with fear and trembling in the presence of his God and ours.

  18. Nate Oman
    January 17, 2005 at 12:53 pm

    Ronan: I agree with everything that you say, so long as it does not extend to Thomas Jefferson. The man was a schmuck of the first order.

  19. Nate Oman
    January 17, 2005 at 12:55 pm

    Adam: I am glad to see that you have some reticence about defending Jefferson. Good Burkean that you are you should find that man appalling for philosophical as well as ethical reasons.

  20. January 17, 2005 at 12:56 pm

    “Given the MLK repeatedly cheated on his wife, it’s not surprising that Benson believed the “Reverend” to be a charlatan.”

    Except Matt, that unless Benson had either been personally told by RFK, Hoover, or members of their inner circles about what the FBI had learned about King through extensive wiretapping of his hotel rooms and telephone conversations, then he wouldn’t have known he was cheating on his wife. (Of course, it might have been revealed to him. But given the less than clear record of the Lord choosing to reveal the truth behind charlatans to His servants–the matter of Hoffman’s forgeries and murders come to mind–that doesn’t strike as likely, though it is certainly possible.)

    And Matt–“Reverend” was Martin Luther King’s title, due him through his graduation from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951 and his acceptance as an ordained minister in the Baptist Church three years later. It seems rather besides the point to put scare quotes around his title because of his record of behavior.

  21. Adam Greenwood
    January 17, 2005 at 1:04 pm

    Nate Oman:
    I sometimes think that disliking Thomas Jefferson is the glue that holds the strands of the conservative movement together.

  22. January 17, 2005 at 1:06 pm

    “The man was a schmuck of the first order.”

    I don’t even know where to begin with that. Hypocrite? Sure. Arrogant? Oh yeah. Flakey? Often. Narcissistic? Probably. But a “schmuck”? A loser, a fool, a creep, a louse, an idiot? That is a deeply screwed-up reading of Thomas Jefferson, my friend. I suppose one might begin a response by listing all the people who didn’t think Jefferson was a schmuck, despite their frequent and deep disagreements with the man. John Adams, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Governeur Morris, Dolly Madison, Martha Washington, Abagail Adams….shall I go on? Their admiration for the man is palpable in their speeches and correspondence, despite their equally clear frustration and even hatred of many of his opinions and acts. So, does that make all them patsies? Good grief.

  23. Adam Greenwood
    January 17, 2005 at 1:13 pm

    I think you should read ‘schmuck’ as a general term of disapproval, Russell Arben Fox.

    Anyway, I might say that Jefferson is the converse case of Martin Luther King–a man whose gifts deserved respect at the time but whose flaws are, in many ways, still with us.

  24. Matt Evans
    January 17, 2005 at 1:15 pm

    I agree that Jefferson had severe moral failings. The reason I admire him so is his infinitely curious mind, for standing up to Hamilton on democracy, and for and being, with Franklin, America’s first Renaissance man. I also admire MLK despite his shortcomings.

  25. Nate Oman
    January 17, 2005 at 1:15 pm

    John Adams’s assessment of Jefferson varied widely over time, as did Abigail’s. Compare their comments in the 1780s with their comments in the 1790s. Their assessment of him tended to depend largely on their mood and the extent to which they had recently been exposed to Jeffersonian perfidy. Washington, as I understand it, had similar reactions. I have to say, that I have the same ebbs and flows in my opinions of Jefferson, so I am in good company. ;->

    Jefferson never seems to have lost his glow for Madison. However, I can’t help but thinking that Jefferson was the beneficiary of some sort of bizarre insecurity on Madison’s part here. Madison seems to have consistently been in awe of Jefferson’s depth as a political theorist and a political leader, even though Madison certainly exceeded Jefferson both as a skilled architect of political institutions and as a skilled political tactician. (Although, Jefferson seems to have been better at getting newspapers to print nasty things about his political opponents.)

  26. January 17, 2005 at 1:16 pm

    I find it interesting Nate that you seem willing to throw Jefferson out completely. Were his contributions really so meaningless?

  27. Nate Oman
    January 17, 2005 at 1:22 pm

    Steve: No. I wasn’t arguing that his accomplishments were meaningless. I am arguing that he was personally hypocritical, narcissistic, vain, vindictive, underhanded, conniving, self-righteous, and otherwise afflicted with qualities that one would not like to see in one’s children. The Decleration of Independence, however, is a great state paper, U.Va. is an exceptionally nice university, he seems to have been a competent diplomat (at the very least it kept him out of the country so that he couldn’t do any mischief during the constitutional convention) and by providing the intellectual foundations for the Confederacy he insured that American constitutional (and military) history would be interesting.

  28. Nate Oman
    January 17, 2005 at 1:24 pm

    Also, the Louisiana purchase was probably a good idea, although it would have been nice if he had eaten crow a bit more publically on the constitutional hypocrisy involved on his part.

  29. January 17, 2005 at 1:25 pm

    Perhaps then we are just dancing around the criteria for greatness. There seems to be a point of irresponsible personal behavior past which we cannot accept someone to be great, despite their public accomplishments. Jefferson clearly crosses that line for some, and I can accept that. What’s the rule then for tolerance of hypocrisy in great leaders?

  30. Adam Greenwood
    January 17, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    Yikes! It’s been months since I remembered to thank my Maker that Jefferson wasn’t around for the Convention. Thanks for the reminder, Nate.

  31. Frank McIntyre
    January 17, 2005 at 1:41 pm

    I think we should reserve this discussion of Jefferson for “Jefferson Day”. Oh wait… Well, I guess he still was a president, so we can attack him on Presiden’t Day and Steve can get huffy about people bringing up his failings on “this of all days”, like Steve was about the MLK comments.

    Which is all just a roundabout way of saying that I don’t know of any other off-work holidays besides Christmas dedicated to one person. I don’t think Columbus day counts. Am I missing one?

    If we had to pick one (non-Deity) person to take the day off for as a nation, who would it be? Honestly I can’t think of any choices that wouldn’t stick in somebody’s craw. So as long as we can’t agree, I might as well go with my personal favorite. Joseph Smith was a far greater American than Thomas Jefferson or MLK. With both of them, he was the subject of a racy biography or two, but in his case he was actually doing what God commanded him to and what was right. His public accomplisments were amazing and long-lasting and his personal behavior was upstanding. Here’s to JS day.

    Of course, I rarely am working on December 23rd anyway…

  32. Hans Hansen
    January 17, 2005 at 1:48 pm

    Excerpt from “I Have A Dream”, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963 by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

    “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

    I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

    I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

    This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

    When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

    For the entire speech see this link:


  33. January 17, 2005 at 1:49 pm

    It just seemed ironic, somehow, that the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” thread, which Matt posts on MLK Day, would dredge up MLK’s infidelities as a reason to consider him a charlatan.

    Sorry for the huff, Frank.

  34. Greg
    January 17, 2005 at 2:03 pm

    For anyone interested in more of MLK’s words, last year at this time I posted much of “A Knock at Midnight” — one of his greatest, but mostly unquoted, speeches.


  35. January 17, 2005 at 2:15 pm

    Also, Kulturblog is honoring MLK in its own way: a link to the MLK Papers Project and streaming U2’s Pride.

  36. Boris Max
    January 17, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    Here’s a chunk of another inspiring speech of King’s. This should help explain why Benson called King a communist. Not because Benson is a racist, not because King was actually a communist, not because King cheated on his wife, but because King had political committments that Benson was uncomfortable with. Benson, as people on the far right are fond of doing, resorted to red-baiting: people who disagree with me must be communists. The extent of that disagreement becomes apparent when we examine King’s views on Vietnam:

    From “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City.

    As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in the ghettos] I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked – and rightly so – what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

    … Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.

    … Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

    In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. … I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.


    The rest is posted over on alternet.org.

    Happy MLK day!

  37. Matt Evans
    January 17, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    Steve, the genesis of the “ironic” track of this thread was Kaimi’s allegation that the church opposed civil rights and his pointing out that Benson didn’t like MLK. MLK’s simultaneously being a reverend and a “relentless” (the adjective used by Michael Dyson, one of his current black defenders) adulterer are germane to Kaimi’s question why a church leader might have held him in low regard.

    I wholeheartedly agree that those issues are irrelevant to the beauty of the ideas and ideals expressed in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

  38. January 17, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    I guess it’s just not obvious that ETB knew of MLK’s infidelities. It seems unlikely to me. What does, however, seem likely is that ETB suspected MLK of being a communist or communist sympathizer, and distrusted him as such.

    And I share your belief, Matt, that those issues are irrelevant to what the Letter says.

  39. Adam Greenwood
    January 17, 2005 at 3:09 pm

    Unlike Boris Max, I do not think that liking Martin Luther King requires smearing Ezra Taft Benson.

  40. January 17, 2005 at 3:11 pm

    I think the problem is that MLK simply isn’t in the deep recesses of history enough so as to be able to treat him purely as a symbol and not a flawed historical figure. Jefferson can be because he is far enough in the past that we can be ignorant of his failings. (Although the heaven comments on his slaves the last 10 years or so have made that hard, as Nate points out)

    We want to keep MLK the symbol, but perhaps we of Gen-X or before can’t because we’re too close to the source.

    On the one hand I think we can discuss the utility of a person independent of the person themselves. I think we do this with many people. Consider many scientists, like Einstein, Schrodenger or philosophers like Heidegger. They were reprehensible human beings. Read up on how Einstein treated his first wife, for instance. We are want, because we don’t know the history (well less so with Heidegger) to romantisize them. Einstein is primarily a symbol. Perhaps because his personal life was so well hidden whereas MLK’s wasn’t.

    Nonetheless, it is very, very hard, if not impossible, for one who knows history to neglect it. I can’t read Heidegger without his Nazism or treatments of friends lurking in the background. I can’t think of Einstein as a symbol for the ideal scientist without considering his abandonment of his wife nor his use of her to provide for his research until she wore out her usefulness. I just think that as a symbol for a scientist he doesn’t fit the bill. I feel, in most ways, the same about MLK, even if his famous sermon is to political discourse what Einstein’s equations were to physics.

    Were I to consider a better symbol for civil rights I’d have to consider Malcom X. Yes he was in his earlier years far more controversial. But his personal journey was a tempering and a coming to God. He remained true to his family and especially in his latter years was very admirable.

  41. January 17, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    “I guess it’s just not obvious that ETB knew of MLK’s infidelities.”

    That was my point in #20. Again, it’s possible the Lord revealed something to ETB, and it’s also possible that ETB maintained close enough connection with Hoover from his years in Washington that he was made privy to FBI wiretaps and memos. Or maybe he just made an educated guess on the basis of close observation (though when he could have engaged in such close observation of MLK is unclear). Overall, I think it’s likely that ETB’s distrust of MLK had everything to do with his suspected communism, and little or nothing to do with his personal immorality.

    “I do not think that liking Martin Luther King requires smearing Ezra Taft Benson.”

    I agree. If I thought such was required, then I’d have to attack my father and grandfather as well, which I’m not about to do.

  42. John H
    January 17, 2005 at 8:44 pm

    I love, love the irony! Many join with larger academia in not being “duped” into thinking Jefferson was the hero the lowly masses consider him. We’re far too smart for such pedestrian thinking. And let’s also make sure to be different, not revering Martin Luther King, Jr. as a hero on the day set aside for him, but pull back the curtain and reveal his flaws.

    But when it comes to the Church, nothing but apologetics will do. Benson’s offensive and ridiculously ignorant comments can be dismissed as “of a different stripe.” Forgive me for failing to see any depth in this conversation when it comes across as largely self-congratulatory, if indirectly.

    Those who dismiss Jefferson as a “schmuck” or anything else, are guility of the same shallow thinking that possess those who revere him (or Ezra Taft Benson, for that matter) uncritically.

  43. January 17, 2005 at 9:59 pm

    I can’t speak for Matt or Nate or anyone else, John, but for my part I’m not sure what you’re responding to here. I haven’t elided MLK’s personal immorality, and yet I think he was an inspired and prophetic individual. Similarly, I think ETB foolishly and wrongly condemned MLK and the movement he helped lead, and I recognize him as a man chosen by God. And, for that matter, I allow that Jefferson was hypocrite, etc., and also think that he was a genius and one of the great men of our age. Where’s the inconsistency? Different people may put different emphases on different sins (adultery vs. slander vs. hypocrisy), but I don’t see anyone trying to approach ETB’s record in a substantially different way than anyone else’s. (When I agreed with Adam in that admiring Martin Luther King doesn’t require condemning Ezra Taft Benson, I meant it: I can, in fact, make it clear that my father and grandfather believed and propagated foolish and wrong opinions about Martin Luther King–which they did during the years I grew up–without necessarily calling them fools. Those are two different orders of argument.)

  44. John H
    January 17, 2005 at 10:28 pm


    You are right. My comments probably seem pretty weird to others, and I’m sorry. I came to the thread late and it just seemed to take a strange turn. Why can’t we just admire men like King without having to drudge up the flaws? It’s as if we’re afraid that if we just offer praise, we’ll be seen as condoning everything else. Then we go to the other extreme with our own Church leaders. All praise, no flaws. I think an acknowledgement of the flaws is in order, but our emphasis should be on the good.

    And sorry Nate, but the Jefferson thing did seem like you were trying way too hard to be different.

  45. Frank McIntyre
    January 18, 2005 at 12:04 am

    “Why can’t we just admire men like King without having to drudge up the flaws?”

    MLK’s flaws were fairly serious. As were the alleged flaws of Jefferson. There is nothing in ETB’s behavior that even comes close to the flaws most people attribute to these men. So “all praise and no flaws” would actually be much more in order for ETB than for them. Except that isn’t what we get. I hear more from certain people around here about ETB’s alleged dislike of MLK than I ever do about the many great things he did. That is the disappointing thing. As you put it, Ezra Taft Benson is the sort of man whom we should “admire…without having to drudge up all the flaws”. MLK less so.

  46. January 18, 2005 at 12:45 am


    “As you put it, Ezra Taft Benson is the sort of man whom we should ‘admire…without having to drudge up all the flaws.’ MLK less so.”

    Why? I agree that MLK’s sins were much more serious than ETB’s (working off of what limited knowledge we have of their private and public lives and deeds, of course). However, I fail to see why the seriousness of said sins should make it more necessary or important to “balance” praise of MLK with critique than in ETB’s case. Insofar as the historical assessment of persons goes, the issue is the revelance of events to their particular works (since intentions are not available for our judgment). Take Jefferson for example: while I think Nate’s apparent overboard dislike of the man is bizarre, I don’t deny that there are real conceptual and ethical links between his behavior and his writings and works; hence, a fair judgment of the man probably can’t leave allegations about Sally Jennings out of the equation. But ETB’s suspicions of MLK and the civil rights movement, while wrong, were utterly marginal to his calling as prophet; similarly, MLK’s adulteries, while dispicable, were utterly marginal to his standing as a civil rights leader. So in the case of these latter two, I don’t see any reason to believe a historical “balancing” is more imperative or more difficult for one or the other. The fact that we engage in such balancing at all is probably more a testament to how we’ve learned to talk about history, for good or ill, than anything that their respective record’s make incumbent upon us.

    In case there is any confusion on this point: ETB did great and holy things in his years of church service. He laid down hard and true principles to a changing world; he called to our mind divine condemnations that we’d preferred to forget; he got us reading and thinking about the scriptures in vital and important ways; he brough people to God. (Interestingly enough, in a different context every one of these things could probably be said about MLK as well.)

  47. January 18, 2005 at 9:40 am

    “I hear more from certain people around here about ETB’s alleged dislike of MLK than I ever do about the many great things he did.”

    Maybe that’s because this thread isn’t about ETB. I think you’d find, given the proper context, that most, if not all of us, would have good things to say about ETB if we he were the central topic. “certain people,” indeed….

  48. Mark B.
    January 18, 2005 at 10:01 am

    King died in 1968. The press by then was still slow to print reports about the private sins of public men and women. I don’t remember any reports about King’s philandering, but, I confess, I was not yet 14 when he died, and who knows what went flying past (or over) my head back then.

    It’s much more likely that ETB’s concerns about King were political, not based on personal morality. There was a consistent refrain in the press, and in conservative, racially monolithic places like most of Utah in the 1960’s, that King was an “agitator” who led otherwise law-abiding “Negroes” to be “uppity”, to go out marching and protesting when they should have been getting a job and improving themselves. King’s “Letter” shows that this kind of thought was not limited to backwaters like Utah, but was shared my many of King’s brethren in the churches of the South.

    And now for something completely different: it may be fun to use “schmuck” as a general term of opprobrium, but I doubt that we’d be as casual about the use of its crude English equivalent.

  49. danithew
    January 18, 2005 at 10:09 am

    Racism is a tricky issue. My experience is that people of all ethnicities are capable of being racist against those of other races. Its certainly not just an issue of white racists versus minorities (though that is often highlighted in the U.S. press since whites are the majority in this country).

    Someone earlier mentioned that a Catholic priest had said that racism is like a snake inside of all of us. I think that is very often true and it is a problem that has to be purged by learning, by positive experiences with others who are of different ethnicities, etc.

    While racism is a problem, insensitivity and lack of cultural awareness are also problems that are perhaps less serious but still sometimes offensive. We have a number of native Chinese and Asian families who live in our student housing as neighbors and because my wife is Chinese-American she has (on rare occasions) had experiences that were a little galling. One sister in the ward (a few years ago) had Chinese neighbors that liked to chop vegetables on a cutting board. I guess it made a lot of noise because this sister (in the course of a casual conversation) asked my wife: “are all you Chinese people so loud?”

    This sister was known for being a bit obnoxious and ignorant — so perhaps she made her feelings a bit more known than most would. Still, during the course of time we’ve heard several other negative reactions to the sounds and smells that accompany Chinese/Asian cooking (not our own … we eat mostly American-style food).

    There’s a phrase that my wife has picked up in the medical school — “cultural competency.” We sometimes (in the LDS Church) need to be more aware of how our feelings about the customs, practices, diets associated with particular ethnic groups are being digested by others.

    On the other hand, sometimes LDS people do very well. After the events of 9/11, I heard Jordanian and Egyptian neighbors on more than one occasion say that their relatives outside of Utah were suffering much more in a negative way than they themselves. They expressed a gratitude that LDS people were more tolerant and kind in general to the Muslim/Middle-Eastern population.

  50. Frank McIntyre
    January 18, 2005 at 10:55 am


    When I said “around here” I was not just referring to this post but to T&S generally. Nor was I referring to a certain Counting Crows song. But by certain people, I was mostly referring to Adam Duritz.


    Any reasonably detailed assessment of King David would include his life shattering sin of adultery and murder. The murder was the more serious, but the adultery was, as Alma reminds us, a devastatingly grave sin. The same is true of King (or Jefferson). Any man who commits adultery has committed a crime so grave that it must be considered when considering the man. ETB had no sins of that mortal magnitude.

    Perhaps it is even more relevant because King is the formeost hero among many black Americans, but he did little to help (and may have hurt ) them with one of their gravest challenges; 2/3 black children are born out of wedlock, half live in single-parent homes. Obviously MLK is not to blame for those statistics, but his sins as a leader surely influenced his followers negatively.

    As for ETB, I am unsurprised that he did not like Martin Luther King the socialist who Russell implies, consorted with Communist sympathizers. If ETB mistakenly thought that MLK was more of a sympathizer than he was, that seems like no big deal. That does not mean Exra Taft Benson opposed civil rights (though he may have opposed the way they were pursued) or was a bad person. It is, in fact, rather irrelevant. It is concentrating on the petty instead of the important. Adultery is not an unimportant sin. Just ask Alma, Jacob, or Spencer W. Kimball.

  51. January 18, 2005 at 11:04 am


    Round here we stay up very, very, very, very late.

    I’d give people more credit about ETB. We’re a pretty good bunch, though critical, and I don’t think anyone really dislikes ETB or anything like that.

  52. danithew
    January 18, 2005 at 11:07 am

    I think MLK’s total character should be considered and had also thought of King David as a comparison. At the same time, I sometimes think MLK’s infidelities are awfully convenient for those who don’t want to like him anyway.

    I’ve seen pictures of church leaders with a wide assortment of world leaders, shaking hands and the like. I need to go back and look at my parent’s copy of ETB’s book Crossfire … but as I recall there is a picture there of ETB shaking hands with David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. David Ben Gurion was known for espousing socialism and for having infidelities. But I don’t recall anyone caring so much about this or that it altered or influenced the general Church view of political Zionism.

  53. Nate Oman
    January 18, 2005 at 11:10 am

    John H.: Do you purport to be responding to anyone posting on this actual thread, or are remarks about apologetic whitewashings of the prophets just generalized shadow boxing with your personal demons and the unwashed masses of Mormondom?

    I am sorry if my assessment of Jefferson strikes you as a belabored attempt to be different or a mark of my allegiance to academia and its power of absolving us from complicity in the ignorant hagiagraphy of the commoners. I will try in the future to refrain from such petty iconoclasm.

  54. Frank McIntyre
    January 18, 2005 at 12:12 pm

    Here’s a rather nice short biography of ETB’s life. As secretary of Agriculture, he actually met with many communists! Here’s the passage mentioning Ben Gurion:

    “He served eight years in the Cabinet, meeting with heads of state and agriculture leaders and farmers in over forty nations. He had discussions with such leaders as Chiang Kai-shek, Nehru, Khrushchev, King Hussein, and David Ben-Gurion. During this time, his example and activities brought positive and widespread attention to the Church. President David O. McKay said that Secretary Benson’s work in the Cabinet would “stand for all time as a credit to the Church and the nation” (Benson, 1962, p. 519).”

    But I don’t think that we should infer from that that he personally approved of them any more than he may have of King. Frankly I was always a little amazed that President Benson served in the Cabinet. He comes across as the antithesis of the slick politician.

    And Steve, I have no doubt that “certain people” think highly of President Benson. But the comments are often unduly focused on the negative, considering what a great person he was. To paraphrase President Packer, it is not news that he was a fallible man, what is amazing is that he was a prophet.

  55. danithew
    January 18, 2005 at 12:43 pm

    President Benson’s book Crossfire is worth reading. Its about his days as secretary of agriculture. He describes how he encouraged prayer at the beginning of White House meetings. There’s a political cartoon in the book that shows him holding a sword and there is a tag attached to the sword that says: “I will do what is right regardless of the consequences.” (or something very close to that)

    Of course he drove liberals in the Church pretty crazy at times.

    He plainly felt contempt for Kruschev, describing how the farm equipment in the USSR did shoddy work and how the communist system was deplorable.

  56. Mark B.
    January 18, 2005 at 1:17 pm

    And, to continue Frank’s thought, for those who used to grit their teeth when Elder Benson spoke during the 1960’s, his sermons as prophet were completely apolitical–the prophet in the late 80’s did not sound the same as the apostle in the 60’s.

    What happened? Did he change his political philosophy? Did he cease to care about politics? Did the changing world dispel his former concerns about communist conspiracies? Or did more important things rise to the top?

    I don’t know. I am not sure it matters. The remarkable thing is that he was a prophet.

    Frank says that he “drove the liberals in the church crazy at times.” I don’t know where to draw the line dividing liberals and conservatives (I presume Frank meant political liberals). But, many who probably didn’t consider themselves political liberals also had concerns about ETB’s relationship with the John Birch Society and his outspoken anti-Communism (especially in conference sermons).

    An example, from the October 1967 Conference Report:

    “The Communist program for revolution in America has been in progress for many years and is far advanced. While it can be thwarted in a fairly short period of time merely by sufficient exposure, the evil effects of what has already been accomplished cannot be removed overnight. The animosities, the hatred, the extension of government control into our daily lives–all this will take time to repair. The already-inflicted wounds will be slow to heal.
    First of all, we must not place blame on the Negroes. They are merely the unfortunate group that has been selected by professional Communist agitators to be used as the primary source of cannon fodder. Not one in a thousand Americans–black or white–really understands the full implications of today’s civil-rights agitation. The planning, direction, and leadership come from the Communists, and most of those are white men who fully intend to destroy America by spilling Negro blood, rather than their own.”

    One good thing can be said for his politics, though: it might have got one less active member back on his knees and praying. The story is told that Spencer L. Kimball (the prophet’s son, who had been out of the church for years) had begun praying again. He was praying that his father would outlive Bro. Benson.

  57. January 18, 2005 at 1:22 pm

    There’s an interesting question back a ways. The question was whether adultery affects civil rights. Just a question, are the rights of women somehow separate from civil rights? If not, can we really separate King’s view of women (which doesn’t seem very positive) from his views of civil rights?

    Secondly, it seems like these moral issues are brought up all the time. I’ve certainly heard it made of Israeli leaders who play the religion card but whose own personal lives don’t exactly follow Moses terribly well. You can call such people useful, but not really hold them up as an ideal of veneration.

    Further this same debate occurs with other modern figures ranging from Clarence Thomas to Bill Clinton.

    I said it once and I’ll say it again. In terms of religious faith, Malcom X was a much more interesting figure than King. That’s not to deny the role of King in the civil rights movement. And I find it sad that in some ways the civil rights movement has turned aside from the approach of either King or Malcom X.

    The real issues, however, seem to get confused. Are we talking about King as a symbol for the civil rights movement? Are we talking about King as a real historical person? Or are we talking about King’s utility to civil rights?

  58. danithew
    January 18, 2005 at 1:29 pm


    I have actually read more about Malcolm X than about Martin Luther King. I can’t be sure how he compares to MLK but I’d agree with the idea that Malcolm X was a genuine truth-seeker. He was embracing a broader vision of Islam and race relations at the time he was killed (that probably was the reason he was killed).

  59. Greg
    January 18, 2005 at 1:39 pm

    Comparing Malcolm X and MLK is complicated, but I will say that Malcolm was a very interesting guy. I read his Autobiography my senior year of high school. It was probably the first non-fiction book I had ever read that was not either required for school or about sports or Mormonism, and it had a huge impact on me.

  60. greenfrog
    January 18, 2005 at 1:46 pm

    ETB had no sins of that mortal magnitude.

    You know this based on what? Solely the supposition that God would not call anyone who had previously sinned in such a fashion as a general authority? Is there an unwritten exception to the operation of the Atonement that I’ve missed?

    Among humans, righteousness does not depend upon not having sinned. It depends upon being forgiven of our sins.

    Perhaps it is even more relevant because King is the formeost hero among many black Americans, but he did little to help (and may have hurt ) them with one of their gravest challenges; 2/3 black children are born out of wedlock, half live in single-parent homes. Obviously MLK is not to blame for those statistics, but his sins as a leader surely influenced his followers negatively.

    Curious choice of language. Isn’t out of wedlock births, whatever the color of the skin of those so born, one of our gravest challenges? I prefer MLK’s vision to yours: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

    As for ETB, I am unsurprised that he did not like Martin Luther King the socialist who Russell implies, consorted with Communist sympathizers. If ETB mistakenly thought that MLK was more of a sympathizer than he was, that seems like no big deal.

    Judging someone wrongly is no big deal?

    It is concentrating on the petty instead of the important. Adultery is not an unimportant sin. Just ask Alma, Jacob, or Spencer W. Kimball.

    What sins do you believe are unimportant?

  61. Frank McIntyre
    January 18, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    Mark B., FYI you’re quoting Danithew not me.


    I thought about including a caveat about ETB having no mortal sins as far as we know. I decided it wasn’t worth it given its implausibility. We know that he was worthy to be called a prophet of God. I am, of course, completely on board with repentance. Are you suggesting MLK repented of his behavior? I hope so, but he never did so publically.

    Out of wedlock birth is a challenge across the board, but among the general population only 25% of births are out of wedlock, while among black Americans the number is 66%. Thus the problem is one that particulalry afflicts black American society. This seems obvious to me. You wish to nitpick about phrasing, but that’s probably because you don’t like the substance of one or more of my comments. For me to pretend I was a black American would not make you happy. Nor would changing the above quote to read “our”, make the sentence easier to read. If my brother is a pathological liar, it is not out of line to refer to it as “his” lying problem, even if it causes me pain and so is also my problem. Nor would me being a liar mean that I could not refer to “his” lying problem.

    As for quoting King’s passage on color-blindness, I am all for that as a way to approach public policy.

    Mistakenly thinking someone is a communist when they are only hanging out with communists is not the same as judging them (in the sense of the scriptural admonition to not condemn them). Nate Oman thinks Jefferson was a real dweeb. Has Nate Oman therefore committed a sin comparable to adultery. No.

    Similarly, ETB making a mistake about MLK’s comunist loyalties is not as important as MLK committing adultery repeatedly, in terms of assessing the life of each man for history. This is the sense in which it is no big deal. Not that it is no big deal between God and me for me to deal with all of my sins, but rather that in that process, I am glad that adultery will not be part of the package. Thus I would suggest that if we were to rank sins by importance, we can start with the ranking used by Alma, Jacob, and President Kimball. All of whom judged sexual transgression to be among the most grievous of all sins. Not that I am inclined to spend a lot of time on the endeavor.

  62. JCP
    January 18, 2005 at 5:26 pm

    It’s too bad this thread has moved to discussions of “whose sins are greater” or “whose contribution was smaller”?

    It should burst no one’s bubble to note that the contributions of Thomas Jefferson, Ezra Taft Benson, and Martin Luther King Jr. dwarf the contributions of most Americans (or most human beings for that matter). The holiday to honor the Reverend King should be a moment of gratitude for the improved conditions in America (both physically, and in many respects morally). Perhaps more importantly, the holiday should cause us to consider King’s nonviolent methods. Whatever else is true of him, the Reverend King was wildly successful at showing people one very good way to protest terrible wrongs.

    That seems to have gotten rather lost here.

  63. Mark B.
    January 18, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    Sorry, Frank. Didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.

  64. January 18, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    “It should burst no one’s bubble to note that the contributions of Thomas Jefferson, Ezra Taft Benson, and Martin Luther King Jr. dwarf the contributions of most Americans (or most human beings for that matter).”

    Amen, JCP.

  65. Jim F.
    January 18, 2005 at 5:53 pm

    JCP, thanks for bringing us back to the topic. The “whose sins were greater, etc.” discussion was, I think, somewhat unseemly in this context.

  66. Adam Greenwood
    January 18, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    “I don’t deny that there are real conceptual and ethical links between his behavior and his writings and works; hence, a fair judgment of the man probably can’t leave allegations about Sally Jennings out of the equation. But ETB’s suspicions of MLK and the civil rights movement, while wrong, were utterly marginal to his calling as prophet; similarly, MLK’s adulteries, while dispicable, were utterly marginal to his standing as a civil rights leader. So in the case of these latter two, I don’t see any reason to believe a historical “balancing” is more imperative or more difficult for one or the other. The fact that we engage in such balancing at all is probably more a testament to how we’ve learned to talk about history, for good or ill, than anything that their respective record’s make incumbent upon us.”

    Exactly, precisely, 100% what I wished I had said, except for the “for good or for ill” part. I’d just leave it at “for ill.”

  67. Lisa F.
    January 18, 2005 at 8:05 pm

    I haven’t read through this entire thread, but just wanted to thank Matt for posting this letter. I had never read it before, so I took the time to read it with my children last night. When we read the part about “sitting down at lunch counters being a way of standing up for America” (my paraphrasing), I was for a moment a little teary, and it was quiet all around. My daughter said, “Mom, he was important like Joseph Smith.” I told her that yes, indeed, he was. We talked about the parallels of the prophet Joseph in Liberty jail, and the writings that he produced there. In fact, as we read, I kept getting images in my head of these two different leaders (I do consider both of them prophets) biding their time in prayer, in song, and in writing.

  68. John H
    January 18, 2005 at 9:01 pm

    Very nice comments, JCP.

  69. John H
    January 20, 2005 at 12:45 am


    If I touched a nerve, it wasn’t my intention. I’m sorry. I was just genuinely taken back by your comments. No one expects hagiography when it comes to Thomas Jefferson or anyone else. I suspect you wouldn’t use much restraint if someone labeled Joseph Smith a “schmuck” – your status as a believing member aside. You’d probably suggest a complex person like Joseph deserved much better than such a judgmental dismissal. And I’d agree.

    Again, I came to the discussion late. Reading all the comments together, rather than reading them as they were posted over a few hours, they seemed to follow a strange path. I’m sure it isn’t what you or others intended. And forgive my late reply – you’ve obviously moved on to other discussions. I don’t have the same online access I used to, but I still wanted to let you know I wasn’t trying to make this personal.

  70. danithew
    January 20, 2005 at 7:45 am

    Be wary of the word schmuck. In American lingo it is often used to merely say that a particular person is unpleasant, a jerk. It’s a funny sounding word, so its tempting to use it. But in Jewish circles most people are very aware that its a vulgar Yiddish word meaning “penis” or perhaps a better translation would be “dick.” I think though that the Yiddish “schmuck” (when used by those who know) is yet a little more vulgar and inappropriate than “dick” is in English. Part of the reason I’m saying this is that I used the word playfully in the presence of some Jewish folks once and I saw one of them flinch. I could tell it was a problem and so I’ve backed away from using it.

  71. Greg
    January 20, 2005 at 8:18 am

    Speaking of Yiddish slang for the male anatomy: Remember a few years ago when Chuck Schumer was campaigning for Al D’Amato’s Senate seat and D’Amato called him a “putz-head”? Lots of folks thought that cost old Al the election.

  72. Mark B.
    January 20, 2005 at 8:35 am

    I guess I must have only read the accounts in the Times, Greg, because I only remember the “putz” part of the comment. Shoulda read the Post!

    I talked about it with a Jewish attorney in my office, who said, “But Schumer is a putz!”

    Seeing him around Stuyvesant High for four years (his daughter Jessica was in the same class with Rachel–that’s graduating class–otherwise she couldn’t hold a candle to Rachel) I think D’Amato was probably right.

    And, why are you up so blasted early?

  73. Greg
    January 20, 2005 at 9:07 am

    Not early, Mark. Very late. Like you were doing oh so many years ago.

  74. January 20, 2005 at 9:28 am


    Is it time to wake up already??

  75. Tatiana
    January 16, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    I was born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. I’m deeply interested in the civil rights movement. I think it was one of the most important political movements in human history, and that MLK’s faith in America, (and that of countless others who were active in the movement), is what made America come true.

    Because they largely won their battle, they also won the battle for every one of us in America and in the world. From reading your comments, I wonder if many of you really understand. The blood on the streets of which MLK spoke was quite real. We could have become another Northern Ireland here. We could have been another Palestine. America could have been ripped apart by this. By all rights, looking at human history, it should have been. And yet it was not. And the world is profoundly better for it.

    I see evidence of a divine hand in this. A new model for human politics was made (not born — there are clear antecedants — but greatly strengthened) by the civil rights movement. God reached out and showed his children a better way, but once again, it came because of the heartfelt prayers and efforts of individual flawed human beings. Joseph and Martin are alike in many ways, just as there are many people who blithely dismiss them both. They may have been flawed but that really doesn’t matter in the end because they asked of God and through them, God was able to show humanity something we desperately needed. Had they not asked, we might be languishing still in well-intentioned ignorance and error. Try to imagine, for instance, how we could have a successful worldwide church without the social changes brought about by the civil rights movement.

    Dianna Nash, one of the founders of the SNCC, who initiated the direct action campaigns that MLK and others incorporated into their own work, said it best. She said if there is one lesson she wanted people to learn from what they accomplished, it was that ordinary individual people are the ones who can change things. She said dynamic leaders are great to have, but the actions of normal folks like us are what matters most.

    I guess what I want to say is that the work is not finished. The world escaped yet again, by the skin of its teeth, but there still is much left to be done. Every single one of us can be Josephs and Martins, in our own spheres, if only we will ask of God the right questions, and follow inflinchingly the answers we are given. We can transform the world with our prayers and our actions. On this day, honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., and 200 years after Joseph Smith, Jr was born, that is what I hope we will remember.

  76. Tatiana
    January 16, 2006 at 4:29 pm

    Matt, it’s a shame that the text you quote has so many errors. Was it the output of an optical character recognition scan? I keep wanting to edit it.

    This (if I’ve done my html tags right) is a link to what looks like a more correct version.

    Hearing MLK speak is far more inspiring, even, than reading his words. Here is a link to a page that has audio of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Don’t you wish everyone could articulate their dreams so powerfully? And here is audio of the “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I hope someone collects all the recordings of his sermons and speeches and distributes them on cd. He’s so wonderful!

  77. queuno
    January 17, 2006 at 10:30 pm

    OK, so I realize that this post was from a year ago, but I need to present a question.

    Let’s assume that we agree with the core set of MLK’s beliefs about striving for equality between the races and opportunity and all that. Should we actively seek out opportunities to right the wrongs or wait for them to come to us? This is not necessarily a theoretical question (for those who say, “oh sure, opportunities come up every day!”).

    I grew up in a community where there was one black family in my high school (in the Great Lakes region). I went to BYU. I live in TGSOT, in the suburbs, and know very few black people (and those in my community don’t need rescuing). I have a black coworker who has every opportunity that anyone else has (and he drives a nicer car and wears nicer clothes, so he is definitely as fiscally blessed as I am).

    It is quite conceivable that my children (should they attend BYU) will experience the same lack of diversity as I do. Obviously, I have sought out the best community I could afford (with schools that are top-notch, which was more of the driving focus).

    So what should I do? Drop my kids into the middle of the barrio with a bag of handouts? Deliberately vote for candidates who will embrace policies that, while they might benefit society, would deliberately restrict my children’s own opportunities? [Many will say that this is exactly the right way to go about it.]

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