Day 4: Happy Black History Month from Jacques Stephen Alexis (Haiti): “Jacques Stéphen Alexis’s Letter to François Duvalier” (1960)”

Day 4: Happy Black History Month from Jacques Stephen Alexis (Haiti)

“Jacques Stéphen Alexis’s Letter to François Duvalier” (1960)

“Haiti 1960

Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor.

Translator’s note: Jacques Stéphen Alexis (1922-1961) was the son of a Haitian writer and diplomat, educated in France when his father was posted there. Imprisoned for his membership in the Haitian Communist Party in the 1940’s, he returned to France where he completed his medical studies as a neurologist. Author of a number of books, most notably Compère Général Soleil (1955), he participated in numerous writers conferences as well as congresses of the Communist movement. Faithful to that movement, he attempted to preserve its unity at the time of the split between the Soviet Union and China. A faithful party member, he met Mao in China in 1961 as well as Ho Chi Minh that same year. Inspired by Cuba, he landed on the Haitian coast in an attempt to start an uprising against Papa Doc Duvalier. Immediately captured, he was tortured and killed. The following letter was written in responses to the Duvalier regime’s campaign of harassment against him.

Pétion Ville, June 2, 1960

To His Excellency
Doctor François Duvalier
President of the Republic
National Palace

Mr. President:

I feel safe in saying that I would be welcomed with open arms in whatever country I would care to live: this is a secret to no one. But my dead sleep in this land; the soil is red with the blood of generations of men who bear my name. I descend directly by two lines from the man who founded this country, and so I decided to live and perhaps die here. In my class of twenty-two doctors nineteen live in other countries. I, however, remain, despite offers that were made me in the past and which continue to be made. In many countries more agreeable than this one, in many countries where I’d be more esteemed and honored than I am in Haiti, I would be offered golden bridges if I agreed to reside in them. And yet I remain here.

It is certainly not through boastfulness that I begin my letter in this way. Mr. President, I want to know if I am or am not an undesirable in my country. Thank God, I have never paid attention to the petty inconveniences of life in Haiti: being too obviously followed, countless harassments, the frivolous snubbings current in underdeveloped countries… It is nevertheless natural that I want things to be clear concerning what is essential.

And so, Mr. President, I come to the heart of the matter. May 31, that is, the evening before yesterday, to the full knowledge of all, I moved from my home on the ruelle Rivière in Bourdon to settle in Pétion Ville. Imagine my shock when I learned that the day after my departure, that is yesterday evening, my former home was surrounded by policemen searching for me, causing an uproar in the quarter. I have no knowledge of having any problems with the police, and I peacefully awaited them at my new domicile. I am still waiting for them, after having carried out my normal occupations this morning, June 2.

If these facts turn out to be true then I know enough about police methods to know that this is called intimidation. In fact, in Pétion Ville I live near the home of the prefect, M. Chauvet, so if there was a real need to do so they know where to find me. So if this intimidation – since I call things by their real names – was the act only of the subaltern police it is of some use that you be informed of certain of its proceedings. It is taught at Svorolovak University, in the course on anti-police techniques, that when the police of bourgeois countries are overwhelmed or worried they strike out wildly while at ordinary times they select the objectives of their blows. Perhaps this classic principle applies in this affair, but worried police or not, overwhelmed police or not, I must seek to understand the true objective of this attempt at intimidation.

At first I wondered if the goal wasn’t to make me leave the country by creating an atmosphere of insecurity around me. I didn’t accept this interpretation, for they perhaps know that until now I haven’t been accessible to the sentiment called fear, having several times looked death in the eye without blinking. I also didn’t credit the hypothesis that the motive for the police maneuver in question was to get me to go into hiding, for I have also learned under what conditions taking to the maquis is a worthwhile endeavor for those who do so and for those who force them to do so. The only explanation remaining was the intimidation aimed at leading me to restrict my own freedom of movement. But in this case as well, this means they did not know me at all.

Everyone knows that for a plant to be fully productive it needs the sap of its native soil. A novelist who respects his art can’t be a man without a country, nor can a true creation be conceived in an office, but rather by diving into the depths of the life of his people. The authentic writer can’t do without daily contact with the people with calloused hands, the only ones worth our efforts. It is from this universe that great works proceed, a universe perhaps sordid but so luminous and so human that it alone allows us to transcend ordinary humanity. This intimate knowledge of the pulsations of the daily life of our people con only be obtained by diving directly into the deepest layers of the masses. This is the main lesson of the life and works of Frédéric Marcelin, Hibbert, Lhérisson, and Roumain. Simple people had access to them at all times as if they were friends, just as these true sustainers of Haïtianité were at home in the poorest shack in the neighborhoods of the plebe. Though my many friends around the vast world worry about the working conditions I must suffer under in Haiti I can’t renounce this land.

In addition, as a healer of suffering I can’t renounce my popular clientele, that of the working class neighborhoods and the countryside, the sole profitable one in this country abandoned by almost all of our good specialists. Finally, as a man and as a citizen it is indispensable that I feel the inexorable march of the terrible malady, the slow death that every day leads our people to the cemetery of nations like wounded pachyderms to the elephant’s graveyard. I know my duty towards the young of my country and our working people. Here too I will not abdicate. Goering once said that when he heard the word “culture” he took out his revolver. We know where this led Germany, and the memorable exodus of the mass of the men of culture from the country of the Niebelungen. But we are in the second half of the twentieth century which, whatever might be done, is the century of the people as king. I can’t help but recall the famous words of the great patriot named Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef, a phrase that illuminated the liberating combats of this century of unhappy nationalities: “We are the children of the future,” he said upon his return from exile while lifting his pitiful enemy, the pasha of Marakesh who had collapsed at his feet. I think I have proved that I am a child of the future.

The limitations on my movements, on my work, my occupations, my actions and my relations in the city and the countryside is not acceptable. I had to say this, and that is the reason for this letter. In it I take my stand, for if they want to the police can see that the politics of candidates does not interest me. The desolating and pitiful political life that maintains this country in backwardness and has led it to bankruptcy for 150 years is not for me. I have the greatest disgust for it, as I wrote three years ago.

If by chance as happened last December the customs office refuses to deliver me a package – a projector for art slides that the Union of Chinese Writers sent me and which one of the new gentlemen probably took for his personal use – I would smile. If I remark the too-recognizable face of a guardian angel watching over my door I would again smile; if one of these new gentlemen smashed into my car and I had to thank him I would again smile. Nevertheless, Mr. President, I want to know: yes or no; do they refuse me the right to live in my country as I wish? I am sure that after this letter I will be able to have an idea about this. In that case I will be better able to make the decisions imposed on me as a creator and an artist, as man and a citizen.

Yours truly,
Jacques Stéphen Alexis.”

God and the Prayers of Black Women:Happy Black History Month from Carl Brouard (Haiti)

God and the Prayers of Black Women:
Happy Black History Month from Carl Brouard (Haiti)

“The Negresses Pray”

Oh! my God!…
all the long days
all the long years
we’ve told the rosary of suffering!

And yet…Oh Lord—
our black hands are white with good!

Oh! my God!…
pale faces from beyond the Sea took
the land of our fathers,
our huts were burned
the eyes of our sons could not see the light.

And yet.. Oh Lord
our black hands are white with good!

Oh Lord!…
since our hands white with good can not
pluck
the sweet fruit of peace
give us white hands black with sin!

***Day 3: Black History Month

The Four Big Words: Happy Black History Month from Jean-Jacques Dessalines!

The most important words in the Haitian Declaration of Independence (Acte de l’Indépendance), which Haiti’s founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed on January 1, 1804 to the newly-emancipated enslaved African population in Haiti, are as follows:

· Liberté (liberty): it is used 10 times in the document.
· Indépendance (independence): it is used 9 times in the document.
· Bonheur (happiness): it is used 4 times in the document.
· Libre (free): It is used 6 times in the document.

In the Haitian Declaration of Independence, the words liberty and independence refer to both political liberty and political independence of the newly-established nation or Republic of Haiti. The words happiness and free allude to both personal happiness and personal freedom, respectively. In other words, for Dessalines, the destiny of the nation of Haiti is intimately linked to the destiny of the people of Haiti.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines envisioned an independent, sovereign, and free Haiti wherein its citizen will experience the fruit of the Haitian Revolution: happiness, freedom, liberty, and independence. Those four key words of the Haitian Declaration of Independence not only represent the will and determination of the new people of Haiti and the founder; they are also sacred words of empowerment, resistance, and human dignity that look forward to future possibilities and potentialities in the land of Haiti—toward the common good and human flourishing.

Happy 2nd day of Black History Month!

“God in the Haitian Revolution”

“God in the Haitian Revolution”

I have to finish this interesting article I am writing about the role of God in the Haitian Revolution by this Friday. In particular, it explores the idea of God in Haitian literary imagination, with a special attention to & through an exegetical reading of the Poetry of the Haitian Independence. I like what I have written so far.

***You will be surprised to learn that the early poets of the Haitian Revolution rarely referenced the Vodou religion as a supernatural force that inspired the Haitian Revolution and the birth of the Republic of Haiti. That would change, however, with the poets of Haitian indigènisme and noirisme literary and cultural movements. The latter did a revision of Haitian history through poetic aesthetic and literary reimagination of the role of Vodou in the Haitian Revolution. Interestingly, the early nineteen century Haitian poets who wrote about the Haitian Revolution made the Christian God the author of the Haitian Revolution and appealed to the theological concept of divine providence to account for the inseparable twin events: the abolition of slavery through the Haitian Revolution, and the birth of the Haitian nation. By contrast, the latter Haitian poets who wrote in the second half of the twentieth century attributed the formation of the Republic of Haiti through the Haitian Revolution to the “Mystères” or the “Spirits (“Lwa yo”) of the Vodou faith.

Why do we then have different perspectives that are simultaneously theological, spiritual, ideological, and cultural about the Haitian Revolution and the birth of the nation-state of Haiti?

“Getting the Heroes and Historical Figures of the Haitian Revolution Right”

“Getting the Heroes and Historical Figures of the Haitian Revolution Right”

It is a grave misunderstanding of history and the forces and agents that bring about change in society to state that, for example, the revolutionary mission of Toussaint Louverture has failed because Toussaint did not lead the African revolutionaries to concretize the events leading to the Haitian Revolution and the birth of the Republic of Haiti. It is also a misreading of the historical trajectories and circumstances that brought about the achievement of the Haitian Revolutionary and the naissance of Haiti to assess the success of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (known as the Founder of the nation of Haiti) against that of other equally notable abolitionists and freedom fighters of this transcendent event in global history that resulted in the abolition of slavery and the founding of the Republic of Haiti.

Haitianists and historians of the Haitian Revolution should not have to portray the historical figures of the Haitian revolution against each other to highlight the success of one against the failure of the other. This attitude toward revolutionary Haiti and Black emancipation is a colonized way of thinking and interpreting what truly constitutes of Haitian heroism, Black radicalism, and Black sovereignty. By consequence, Toussaint Louverture did not fail Haiti and the enslaved Africans at Saint-Domingue, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines should not be regarded as a better leader and Haitian Patriot than Toussaint or Alexandre Pétion. The historical actions and intellectual aptitude of Henry Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines should not be evaluated in light of the intellectual genius and military capability of Toussaint or Pétion. There would not have been a Toussaint or a Dessalines in Haitian history without the mentorship and military guidance of General Georges Biassou. There would not have been a Haitian revolution without the radical leadership and committed activism of historical figures such as François Makandal, Jean-Baptiste Chavannes, Vincent Ogé, Dutty Boukman, Cécile Fatiman, Dédée Bazile, Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière, Romaine-la-Prophétesse, etc. In the same line of thought, the realization of the Haitian revolution would not be a historical success and achievement without the contributions of the unknown African soldiers and African revolutionaries whose names are left out in the pages of history books.

The events of the Haitian revolution are linked, and its actors are connected to each other just like historical events and circumstances do not occur in isolation to those who orchestrate them. Heroes are created by a series of human networking and contingent circumstances, and historical actors and heroes are also the product of connected history and relational events. Each historical figure named above had left his or her own mark on the Revolution and Haiti’s national history, and each one contributed distinctively to the eventual emancipation of the enslaved African population in the French colony of Saint-Domimgue-Haiti. Each one of them has inspired the struggle against slavery, colonization, imperialism, and oppression in the land of Haiti and other societies in the world. The heroes and architects of the Haitian revolution are many, and their experience is not monolithic or homogeneous just like the events and trajectories of the Haitian Revolution. In the same vein, various religious traditions (i.e. Vodou, Christianity, Islam, Native American indigenous spirituality) and political systems (i.e. African, European, Caribbean) made the Revolution a historical possibility and an event of historical memory. Respectively, each actor of this watershed moment in human history contributed enormously to the formation and establishment of the nation-state of Haiti, directly and indirectly. There is not “one darling” of the Haitian revolution, and certainly, there is not “one hero or heroine” of revolutionary Haiti.

Finally, as it is often the case in global history and history of the nations, most heroes/heroines and freedom fighters in history (of emancipation, decolonization, independence, civil rights, desegregation, religious freedom, women’s rights, suffrage, and equality) such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Moses (Lawgiver in Judaism), Prophet Mohammed (founder of Islam), Jesus of Nazareth (Founder of Christianity), Paul of Tarsus (Architect of Christianity), Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Medgar Evers, Abraham Lincoln, Kwame Nkrumah, Che Guevara, Mohandas Gandhi, Karl Marx, and a host of other historical figures in this category did not live to see the fruit of their labor and faithful struggle for freedom and human flourishing. Yet they leave behind a cloud of witnesses and beneficiaries of their efforts and works.

A Prayer for Guidance and Good Leadership for the Biden-Harris Administration

Today is “The Day” for a fresh start and for us to begin again, as a renewed nation and a people.

A Prayer for Guidance and Good Leadership

May the most wise God guide President Biden and Vice President Harris in administering justice for the poor, the wrongly-incarcerated, and the marginalized, and in leading this nation to make moral and ethical decisions that would contribute to the common good and human flourishing in this nation and in the world.

May the God of kindness lead this new administration to lead with truth, reason, kindness, grace, compassion, and in humility. May this new administration champion the cause of the poor, the sick, the fatherless, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, and the illegal immigrant.

May the God of providence influence the actions and ambitions of this new administration that would contribute to international friendship and solidarity, mutual respect and reciprocity, and human dignity and the sacredness of life in this nation and in the world.

May the God of love direct President Biden and his administration not to wage war with another nation and continue America’s imperial policies and military interventions in the developing countries and darker nations of the world.

May the most gracious God use the leadership of Biden-Harris to make this nation a people of compassion, hospitality, and justice.

May we all be the recipients of new divine graces and mercies on this day and forward.

In His Name, I pray.

Amen!

“In Praise of our Common Humanity and Human Flourishing: On Race, Unity, and Virtues”

“In Praise of our Common Humanity and Human Flourishing: On Race, Unity, and Virtues”

The problem of race in the American society has paralyzed our psyche to identify and affirm our common humanity. Racial-based ideas and practices have also hindered our common progress and desire to attain human flourishing, both individually and collectively, in society. As a result, some of us promote an incomplete end of human life, that is, the project of unity between the races in society to cure the dilemma of race. Arguably, the predicament of race in our culture is basically a problem of virtue. Race problems clearly indicate our weak desire to pursue higher virtues in life, that is, the divine-inspired human qualities in us that make life in this world more beautiful, relational, and interconnected.

The goal of racial disunity is not reconciliation or racial unity. Progress in race relations in society requires the cultivation and demonstration of moral virtues and ethical qualities that would make reconciliation a potential destination. The end of this life is not to attain racial unity (yet it is important and has its place in a divided country like ours); rather, each one of us has a sacred duty: the humanization of ourselves and the social/political/economic/cultural order, and the promotion of our shared humanity. The question we should be asking is this: what does it mean to be human in society? Or how does one function constructively like a full human being in the world according to the basic principle that everyone in the world or in human history bears the image of God. We should pursue the shared values and qualities (or what I simply call the “divine-inspired universal makers in us”) that will make us functionable and adaptable in any human society or culture in the world.

The project of (racial) unity and (racial) reconciliation has some theological antecedents and foundations. It is intimately connected to the fundamental qualities of being created in the divine image. Those basic divine-inspired human virtues and qualities are crucial to live the good life and to strive for human flourishing in the world.

Without certain virtue ethics, racial reconciliation is just a dream. Instead of trying to work toward racial progress and unity, let us first attempt to cultivate certain necessary virtues that would lead to transformation in the workplace, social relations, human relationships, and social systems and political institutions.

In other words, one should ask what are the moral and ethical virtues that I need to work on to sustain our common humanity and to promote unity, reconciliation, and peace in my community and society. Cultivating certain moral and ethical virtues are important to live fully and constructively as imago dei in the world.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (16 April, 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]”

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
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 statement 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 all 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 had 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-withdrawal 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 mayoral 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 off, 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, so 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 in 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 still 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 darts 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 are 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 well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first 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 distorts 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 sinful. Paul Tillich has 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 see 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 fail 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 all 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: “All 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 irrational 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 the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I 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 all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists 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, Jesus 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 all 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 nonsegregated 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 life 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. I 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 leaders; all 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, un-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 Wallace 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? I 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. Far 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 will 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 jail 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 and all over the nation, because the goal of America is 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 handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. 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 feets 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 is 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.”

https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Love and Justice!

The Bible talks more about justice than love; repentance more than unity; liberation more than oppression; inclusion more than exclusion; and hospitality more than alienation. Yet from a Biblical and theological perspective, love is untenable without justice; no unity or reconciliation without repentance; and healing is not possible without reparation.