Thursday, 03 February 2011 14:55

What the LGBTQ Community Can Learn From Dr. King's 'Letter From A Birmingham Jail'

Written by  Angel Chandler

Most people know the “enemies” of equality, those figures who make it their mission to maintain the status quo. Their voices are usually loud, frequent, and damaging. They use lies, intimidation, misinformation, and fearmongering to keep us in the closet and our heterosexual counterparts concerned about our “agenda”. They are plentiful. Leaders of the LGBTQ movement cry out against these ideologues on a regular basis and when we discuss why our country is so behind in giving LGBTQ citizens basic rights, we often have fingers pointed in their direction. But when we look closer and examine the facts, we find a group of people who hold an ideology much more damaging to LGBTQ equal rights and protections under the law. The most dangerous ideology does not rest with the extremist; rather, it rests with the enablers; the moderates and well mannered liberals who support the status quo and conservative ideology one inaction at a time.

They surround us, people who voice a desire for equality, but support bigotry: gays and lesbians across this country working for the very people who discriminate against us; LGBTQ individuals voting for candidates who don't openly advocate for equality; progressives who support anti-gay candidates and elected officials; elected officials who profess they are for civil rights, human rights, gay rights; but who decline to stand for those very values with any meaningful legislation for fear of damaging their own political careers; gays and lesbians who are satisfied with their own inequality or who are at least not dissatisfied enough to take any serious action.

For those of us who do take action, who march, protest, we hear the cries from those enablers: slow down; wait; not so fast; your actions are too extreme; you are simply agitating; we don't want to make people angry; we just want to work within the system; give our elected officials time to act; if they stand up for gay rights they won't win their elections; our time will come, it's just not right now.

Although incredibly frustrating, we can take heart that we are not the first to face such opposition and barriers. During the civil rights movement of the 20th Century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bared his frustrations with the lack of progress in the movement and with the lack of involvement from those he felt should be invested in equality in a letter he penned while incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama jail. Dr. King's letter brings to light many of the barriers we face in the LGBTQ civil rights movement today. Many of the arguments King answered in the letter are the same arguments LGBTQ activists currently hear. We are told to be patient, to wait our turn, to not create an environment of tension and conflict, to respect the process. Regrettably, King was often told this by people who claimed to be allies in his fight for social justice, another similarity to our civil rights journey. Dr. King's letter was an eloquent but politely scathing response to his critics who wanted him to tone down his tactics.

In “Letter From Birmingham City Jail”

1, Dr. King points out a barrier to the civil rights movement that is quite parallel to a significant obstacle in the current LGBTQ rights movement. King stated: "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 Councilor 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.

King made crystal clear his thoughts on inaction in times of crisis, stating “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.” To King, silence equaled consent.

Dr. King was often accused of creating tension and conflict to the detriment of the goal of equality. King addressed assertions that conflict and tension were liabilities rather than assets, stating that he was “not afraid of the word 'tension'”, explaining, “there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” King had it right, allowing those in power and control to remain comfortable and at ease would not only have been a mistake, it would have ended their momentum, and possibly their movement.

These same people, the moderates, the greatest “stumbling block” for equality, were often the ones who also were the greatest critics to the methods Dr. King used to fight for social justice. They were the ones who disapproved of using civil disobedience, who were more concerned with the manners of the protesters than they were with the injustices those protesting had suffered. Dr. King answered criticism from those who thought his use of direct action and civil disobedience was overreacting, those who criticized him of taking action too extreme too soon, stating “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well timed' in view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.....For years now I have heard the word 'wait!'... 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'.” King then reminded his critics that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” King also rightly pointed out that laws that were not “just” were not to be honored, stating “one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” To King, civil disobedience was not only necessary and justified, it was a moral imperative.

In his quest to insure his actions were justified, King developed a formula of accountability. He outlined four basic steps in “any nonviolent campaign”, which were “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” Dr. King wanted his critics to know, direct action was not for showmanship; rather, direct action was a logical and necessary step when burdened with injustice and inequality.

We are reminded by King throughout that letter that he wrote as he sat in a jail cell that we are not alone, that there were others who came before us, who fought against injustice and for equality, and against all odds. They were seen as outcasts, agitators, sinners, derelicts. They were castigated, demonized, and hated. They fought the good fight, not only for themselves, but for all of humanity. Those who were seen as scoundrels are now seen as heroes. They are now honored as the visionaries, the giants, the vanguard of the social justice movement. Whenever I am discouraged I read Dr. King's inspiring words in his Letter From the Birmingham Jail as well as other writings and speeches of his. As I pour over his words I hope that I too can “wage the struggle with dignity and discipline”

2, that I can hang on to the idea that “love is the most durable power in the world”

3 and I hope that I will always remember that “our most powerful weapons are the voices, the feet, and the bodies of dedicated, united people, moving without rest toward a just goal.”


1. King, Martin Luther, Jr., “Letter From a Brimingham City Jail.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. James M. Washington. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.

2. King, Martin Luther, Jr., “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. James M. Washington. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.

3. King, Martin Luther, Jr., “The Most Durable Power.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. James M. Washington. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.

4. King, Martin Luther, Jr., “The Social Organization of Nonviolence.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. James M. Washington. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.