Fifty years ago yesterday, a group of eight white Birmingham clergy published “A Call For Unity,” an open letter criticizing Martin Luther King and other civil rights organizers. The letter, excerpted below and available in full here, prompted King to write Letter From Birmingham Jail.
The authors of A Call For Unity varied in their background and ideology, but all of them considered themselves opponents of segregation. They were, they believed, allies of the anti-racist cause. Several were, in fact, anti-racist activists. Their letter was a call for caution, not capitulation, for slow progress, not retreat.
In the years that followed, some would take King’s words to heart and expand their commitment to forceful anti-racist organizing. Others would become embittered, believing that King had misrepresented and slandered them.
“We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely…
“We believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experiences of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
“Just as we formerly pointed out that ‘hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,’ we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham…
“We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”
King’s response, Letter From Birmingham Jail, appeared four days later.