01/17/2011 09:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Spirit of King: Urgency and Hope From the Birmingham Jail

In 1963, Martin Luther King was not being celebrated with a national holiday. He was a controversial figure who found himself in the Birmingham jail.

While he was incarcerated, he wrote one of the most remarkable letters in American history.

It was written during a critical campaign of civil disobedience, in response to another letter published in the press from moderate clergy who urged restraint on the civil rights movement. The letter is an eloquent argument explaining "why we can't wait." But it is much more.

King dispatches all of the "moderate" arguments for inaction and "patience." He clearly paints the picture of what it is to be the subject of discrimination and oppression. He says,

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed... 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."

But then toward the end of his letter, after cataloging the horrific treatment of African Americans, he does something quite remarkable.

King could easily have written a letter that was nothing more than condemnation of hypocrisy and inaction... he could have focused on the horrific record of European settlers in the New World -- exterminating the Native Americans, enslaving African Americans.

Instead he calls on all Americans to live up to the values inherent in the other set of American traditions... the traditions that celebrate equality and freedom.

King believed that everyone has within him both a potential for good and a potential for evil. Rather than simply decrying the potential for evil, or the evil itself, he sought to reawaken the potential for good. That is a key lesson that is absolutely necessary to make America successful today, just as it was in the 1960's.

He closes his letter:

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. 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.

...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 of their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr.