Is It Easy for You to Say “Wait”? MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail
If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he’d have just celebrated his ninetieth birthday. But of course he’s not alive. What he lived for got him killed.
I spent some time reflecting on this yesterday, the day we as a nation set apart to remember his legacy and the causes he advanced and those that still linger. I also took some time in the morning to read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, though near the end of the letter King wryly notes his “letter” is closer to a book than a letter because of its length. The title communicates some of the setting of the letter, but it’s also important to know that the letter is a response to several white clergymen, that is, men who, like me, work in full-time ministry.
While in jail, someone gave King the criticism of the clergy, which had been published in a newspaper. King notes in the letter that he seldom took time to respond to criticism because, he writes, “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.”
But because of the nature of the criticism and who wrote it, and perhaps because of the time afforded to him in jail, King responded. And what a response it was. Many thoughts from the letter pricked my conscience, but below was one of the more arresting paragraphs. In poignant language, King is responding to the criticism that his actions are not “well-timed” and that, if he could only “wait,” he might have a more sympathetic audience. Yet saying “wait,” as King notes, is pretty easily done by those who “have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”
I pray that if you have not suffered the disease of segregation—as I certainly have not—King’s words will sober you, as they did to me. I also have a six-year-old daughter, and I can’t imagine telling her she’s not allowed at Hershey Park, the amusement park near my house, because of her skin color.
We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess 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, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; 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 the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; 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 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 and 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 tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and 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 an abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963)