Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

King’s 1963 letter remains instructive

  • Print

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, an American federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around the time of King’s birthday, Jan. 15. King was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the American civil rights movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honour began soon after his assassination in 1968. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed three years later.—source Wikipedia


Martin Luther King Jr. Day always coincides with the beginning of the spring semester at my college. So, over the weekend that includes the holiday, I usually ask my students to read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Ordinarily a few of them have seen it before, but it’s new to most, and for many it’s a bit of an eye-opener.

King went to Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to support non-violent protests of the city’s pervasive racism and was promptly thrown in jail for parading without a permit. Eight white clergymen published a letter saying that, of course, they agreed with King that all men deserve equality and that, eventually, equality and freedom will come.

But they criticized King’s methods, arguing that reform should occur through negotiation and in the courts, not as the result of public protests. They asked, essentially, What’s the hurry?

Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s eloquent answer.

To most of us, slavery is an abstraction, a brutal element of an economic system that was abolished a century before King marched in Birmingham. But I want my students to understand that, in fact, King was battling a more insidious, but no less destructive, institution, a systematic and unequal segregation that persisted in much of America well into the lifetimes of citizens still alive today.

Here’s an example: King tells the clergymen who objected to his methods that maybe they’ll understand the urgency of his mission "when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no hotel will accept you."

This complaint, among a long list, in King’s letter, of worse injustices suffered by American blacks, reminds me of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, a travel guide published by Victor H. Green from 1936 to 1964.

Green saw a need for a guide listing hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses that "negroes" could patronize "without embarrassment," clearly a euphemism for more serious insults and threats that blacks endured under Jim Crow.

The 1949 edition says, "The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted and there are numerous publications that give the gentile whites all kinds of information." And the 1956 edition understates: "The White has had no difficulties in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different."

Perusing these guides is instructive: I don’t know how far the Green Book was able to penetrate local markets, but the 1949 edition lists only eight restaurants and two hotels in Corpus Christi, Texas, my hometown, that traveling blacks could use "without embarrassment." One of the hotels is the Y.M.C.A.

By 1956, only six restaurants are listed. And the Green Book can vouch only for Horace Crecy’s Tourist Home as a place where a negro traveler can get a good night’s sleep.

No wonder King and other blacks sometimes wound up spending nights in their cars.

Protests of injustices like these brought King to Birmingham, landed him in jail, and eventually cost him his life. His letter makes for good reading every year around his birthday because it reminds us of the persistent nature of racism.

Slavery is a cancer; you either eradicate it or it kills you. But the kind of racism that King fought is a chronic disease that goes into remission but is difficult to cure.

Things have changed a lot since then, but Letter from Birmingham Jail reminds us of how recently the battle for racial justice was still being waged in our culture.

Sometimes political entities and other institutions have issued apologies to blacks for their participation in the injustices that King died to eliminate. In general, apologies feel like too little, too late. As a white man, it’s not my place to say whether apologies are called for.

But the most valuable thing we can do is not to apologize, but to remember.


John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.



—McClatchy Tribune Services

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Three things to know from the 2015 provincial budget

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A baby Red Panda in her area at the Zoo. International Red Panda Day is Saturday September 15th and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will be celebrating in a big way! The Zoo is home to three red pandas - Rufus, Rouge and their cub who was born on June 30 of this year. The female cub has yet to be named and the Assiniboine Park Zoo is asking the community to help. September 14, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • An American White Pelican takes flight from the banks of the Red River in Lockport, MB. A group of pelicans is referred to as a ‘pod’ and the American White Pelican is the only pelican species to have a horn on its bill. May 16, 2012. SARAH O. SWENSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos


What should the new royal baby be named?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google