Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail

In April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for taking part in a civil rights protest. African-Americans in Birmingham, Alabama had few rights. They were not allowed to enter certain stores and the police would not investigate the bombings of African-Americans’ homes or churches by angry whites. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a non-violent protest in this city to draw attention to the injustices that blacks experienced.

While in jail, he wrote a letter to white Alabama pastors who thought that legalized separation of blacks and whites, known as segregation, should not be protested. They felt that the courts should decide whether the laws of segregation were just. In his letter, King explains that there are two types of laws: just (fair) laws, and unjust (unfair) laws.

He explains that a just law is one that all citizens have a vote on and must follow. An unjust law is a law that only a minority needs to follow whether they can vote on it or not.  For example, he was arrested for parading without a permit. While he sees nothing wrong with a requirement for parade permits, he points out that this law was being used to squash the right of African-Americans to protest for equal rights.

King does not, however, advocate that African-Americans break laws just for the fun of it or out of bitterness for their poor treatment. Instead, they would have to be willing to accept the consequences of their actions. He writes, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly…and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” King was accepting the penalty of an unjust law by calmly sitting in jail for his part in the protest.

History, King points out, is full of unjust laws. For example, Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews was legal for a long time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that Hitler’s laws were unjust. In the same way, segregation laws would be viewed as unjust someday. Thanks to King and other civil rights leaders, the injustice of segregation is obvious to Americans today.  


W.E.B. Du Bois and Black Rights

Like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois served as leader for the black community in the late nineteenth century. In contrast to Washington, however, Du Bois wanted equal rights for blacks immediately. He believed they had the same right to economic and social freedom that whites did. He stated that “they [African-Americans] still press on, they still nurse the dogged hope,–not a hope of nauseating patronage, not a hope of reception into charmed circles of stock-jobbers, pork-packers, and earl-hunters, but the hope of a higher synthesis of civilization and humanity.” In other words, blacks should have the same opportunities as whites.

In his article “Strivings of the Negro People,” he mentioned that black Americans have a “double-consciousness.” By using this phrase, Du Bois meant that because he was an African-American he had two selves—the person he perceived himself to be and the person whites perceived him to be. Instead of comparing themselves as individuals against other individuals, Du Bois and other African-Americans compared themselves to whites.

The way in which whites viewed African-Americans in the nineteenth century, however, was very different from the way African-Americans viewed themselves. African-Americans like Du Bois saw themselves as people capable of learning and working in challenging professions. Whites, however, saw them as ignorant people capable of only working in service jobs such as a maid. As Du Bois said, “the freedman has not yet found freedom in his promised land.” The only way African-Americans could truly be free is if whites were forced to recognize the talents of black people. As a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University, Du Bois was an example of what African-Americans could achieve if they were given a chance.

Booker T. Washington and Racial Equality

In the late 1800s, Booker T. Washington was the President of the Tuskegee Institute, a school in Alabama that taught African Americans practical skills like farming. He spoke to whites about African Americans at the Atlanta Exposition. The speech, which emphasized that good relations with whites would help blacks more than starting arguments, made Washington a recognized leader of African Americans.

Washington believed that in the late nineteenth century African Americans needed good relations with whites so they could make a living and get educated. In his opinion, African Americans could achieve good relationships with whites much easier by seeking jobs in factories or as maids than if they demanded a seat in Congress. He stated, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we [African Americans] must begin, and not at the top.” By filling jobs that were useful to whites, African Americans had a better chance of earning a living. According to Washington, if African Americans had nothing to live on they would not be able to enjoy equal rights even if they had those rights were offered to them.

Although he believed in African Americans working simpler jobs at first, Washington wanted them to be accepted into white society eventually. He pointed out the benefits that whites would gain from helping blacks get education and jobs, “we [African Americans] shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third its intelligence and progress.” Washington believed that if whites saw how useful blacks were to the economy of the South, they would be more accepting of equal rights for blacks. He stated, “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” Despite the fact that he encouraged blacks to work jobs that might seem demeaning, he hoped they would gradually gain the right to do whatever they wanted, including serving in Congress.

Slavery and the American Revolution

The democratic ideals of the American Revolution probably caused African American slaves to hope that their status in society might improve. Slaves took part in the revolutionary movement and assumed new roles in the process. Slaves served the British and American armies and received bounties, land, or freedom in return. After the war a movement to abolish slavery began in the North. Various Northern states called for a gradual abolition of slavery so that slaves born after a certain date would be set free.

Although the American Revolution caused slaves to assume new roles and gave some their freedom, in general African Americans did not achieve the freedoms which the Declaration of Independence claimed for all men. It was one thing to limit slavery in the North, but slavery was most common in the South where it was an important part of the economic system. Plantation owners felt they needed slaves to work in the fields, and they did not want to lose their cheap labor. To southerners, the principles of liberty established in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to African Americans. Slaves were thought of as property and not as men so they could not be considered equal. Despite America’s promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, slavery remained a fact of life for most African Americans, depriving them of each of these rights.

The failure of the American Revolution to grant basic rights to African Americans was not changed by the Constitution which developed after the fighting stopped. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not attempt to abolish slavery, though some wanted to, because they knew the southern states would not accept a constitution that eliminated their labor force. Establishing a constitution that would unite the states was more important to members of the convention than African American rights. The constitution permitted Congress to limit the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, but it failed to give those slaves who were already in the U.S. any additional freedoms. The failure of the Constitutional Convention’s delegates to fully address slavery meant that African Americans would continue to struggle for equality with whites for years.

The Childhood of Malcolm X

Malcolm X faced hardships at a very young age. His father died when Malcolm was six, the victim of white hatred for his militant preaching. The killing of his father placed Malcolm’s family at the poverty level, giving them little hope of staying together. Malcolm’s family was separated by the welfare system which decided that Malcolm’s mother was mentally unstable and could not provide for her children. The youngest children were sent to foster homes, and although they kept in touch, the family was never fully reunited.

Due to the effects of racism on his family, Malcolm X never had the opportunity to be educated by his parents. Both parents had the potential to be strong role models for young Malcolm. His father was a preacher, and if he had lived, he might have guided Malcolm at an early age toward his future profession. His mother received a superior education and could have instilled the love of learning he would eventually find in prison. Instead, his parents’ absence left Malcolm without guidance. He eventually turned to crime and gang members became his mentors, teaching him to evade the law. As Malcolm states in his autobiography, “from a Harlem point of view, I couldn’t have been in a more educational situation. Some of the ablest of New York’s black hustlers took a liking to me, and knowing that I was still green by their standards, soon began in a paternal way to ‘straighten Red [Malcolm’s nickname] out.’”

Malcolm’s schooling lasted briefly due to racism in the educational system. While attending a mostly white junior high school, he expressed his dream of becoming a lawyer. His teacher did not encourage him to pursue his ambition. Instead, he told Malcolm to study carpentry because a law degree was considered to be an unrealistic dream for African Americans. This experience made Malcolm bitter and prevented him from continuing his education. Malcolm received no further education until he was encouraged by a prison inmate to take correspondence courses.

Friends did help Malcolm find employment, but they could only give him access to jobs like shoe shining. Although he eventually got a decent job as a waiter on a train, African Americans could not advance much more than that. As a result, he was unable to resist the money he received from stealing and eventually received a prison sentence for burglary as a young man. Years later when he became the leader of the Organization of Afro-American Unity which promoted unity between blacks and whites, he barely made enough money to support his family. Despite Malcolm’s prominence in the African American community, white society still refused to give him the privileges it shared with members of its own race.


The Attitude of Slaves Toward White Culture

Though African-Americans were forced to adjust to white culture during slavery, they chose to adopt elements which fit in with their former way of life in Africa. 


Christianity–the religion of the dominant culture–influenced African-Americans. Slaves were especially drawn to its teaching of a community of believers. Christianity gave them a sense of community, something that they could share beyond the common humiliations of slavery. While African-Americans adopted many elements of this new religion, they still retained many of the religious beliefs and practices from their homelands. In Africa they had accepted the notion of one supreme Creator who ruled over other gods, so in America they were able to consider the Christ and Holy Ghost of Christianity as lesser gods. The slave Nat Turner used a combination of the religious beliefs of both cultures as justification for revolting against whites. Though he believed in the God of Christianity, he felt that certain signs in the heavens foretold his destiny to lead slaves in an insurrection. Not only did Turner claim that the Holy Spirit had spoken to him, but also that a solar eclipse sent from heaven was “positive proof, that he would succeed in his undertaking…as the black spot had passed over the sun, so would the blacks pass over the earth.” While many African-Americans fully adopted Christianity, others like Nat Turner clung to a mixture of beliefs which distinguished them from the dominant religion.    


Another part of the dominant culture adopted by African-Americans was an Americanized view of the role of the sexes. Although African-Americans were not always able to establish nuclear families, the successful ones regarded the father as the head of the family in imitation of white family structure. This adaptation of the white culture’s view of women as domestic creatures and men as planners or fighters was in stark contrast to the matriarchal society that existed in their homelands.  Slaves copied this model not merely because they admired whites but in order to build a family unit which would allow them to create a sense of identity and belonging. 


 Education was a value of white culture which African-Americans used to their advantage. Like religion, education was sometimes used against white culture. A self-taught slave, Nat Turner learned to read the Bible at an early age. Other people recognized his intelligence and assured him of his greatness. In prison he states that, “my master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house…remarked I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave.” Turner was certain that his intelligence made him unfit for slavery. Whites as well as fellow slaves reinforced this impression. Believing he was superior to his situation, Turner tried to change his circumstances. It was not only Turner’s religious beliefs but also his intelligence which was ultimately responsible for his rebellion against the white culture.



Learning to Read and Write as a Slave

Learning to read and write was forbidden to many slave children. Slave masters feared young slaves would become increasingly unhappy with their position in society if they realized they were able to learn as well as white children.

Some slaves did learn to read and write, however. A few learned from their masters because the masters believed reading the Bible was important for all Christians, including their slaves. Other slaves learned because it was convenient for their masters to have intelligent slaves. For example, one doctor taught his slave to write so the slave could help him keep records of his patients. Frederick Douglass was initially taught to read by his mistress, who then stopped teaching him because it angered her husband.

Even when help from the master or mistress of the house was not available, slaves found other ways to learn. For example, when Douglass’s mistress stopped teaching him, he found white neighborhood boys who gave him lessons. He snuck bread out of the house when he was sent on an errand, and traded the bread for lessons from the other boys. Learning to write was a bit trickier for Douglass, since his mistress’s lessons had not extended beyond reading. He managed to copy a few letters that he saw at the shipyard in a notebook, however. He convinced other boys to unknowingly teach him even more letters. As he writes in his autobiography, “when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, ‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.’ I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that.” Eventually Douglass learned to write with the help of these children.

The kind of determination Douglass and other slaves showed toward learning resulted in about 5% of the 1860 enslaved population becoming literate. The actual number is unknown because some slaves who may have been able to read might have denied it because they did not want their masters to find out.    



Growing Up in Slavery

Slave children took on adult roles and had experiences that today’s children could never imagine. Five-year-old slave children might work in the tobacco fields while others picked cotton and cleared ditches. Food rations from masters increased as children grew into full-time workers. As a result, their parents often pushed them into work earlier for the benefit of the family.

Children also faced the constant possibility that they could be separated from their parents. Slaves could be sold to other masters or worked to death. The memories of these separations haunted slaves even after they were freed. Slave Charles Ball was separated from his mother at age five. Fifty years later he remembered her pleadings with the slave owners and said that the “terrors of the scene return to him with painful vividness.”

Some slave children were spared separation from their families because members of the master’s family became attached to them as childhood playmates. Other slaves benefited from having white fathers. Slave James Rapier was born to a black mother and a white owner/father in 1839. Rapier’s father provided him with a college education and openly acknowledged James as his son.

When aid from outside the slave quarters could not be found, slave families and the larger slave community seldom failed to help anyone in need. For example, Mingo White helped his mother spin thread in the evenings so she would not be whipped for not finishing her heavy workload. For those who had no blood relations, the slave community became a substitute family. The slave community felt responsible for all its members, not just blood relatives. Slave children were taught to address all older slave men and women with kin titles like mother or aunt to prepare them in case a sale or death separated them from their parents. Even in the absence of parents, slave children would not be abandoned by the adult slaves who were left behind.