King didn’t take their advice. Scribbling in the margins of the newspaper or on whatever paper he could find, he became the angry prophet. He unloaded on the clergymen.
Writing only from memory, he deftly cited Socrates, St. Augustine, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the theologian Paul Tillich. He was schooling the clergymen on their own faith.
At one point in the letter, he responded to criticism that he was advocating breaking the segregationist laws in Birmingham. How could a minister tell people to break the law?
King said there was a difference between just and unjust laws. An unjust law is one that a dominant group is not willing to follow itself.
“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal,’” King wrote. “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
The emotional fire in the letter comes when King speaks as a Black man, some scholars say.
King once detested White people because of his experiences growing up in the segregated South, Rieder says. Though King grew up in the Black middle class of Atlanta, he experienced all sorts of racial humiliation and saw Blacks treated with viciousness.
“He went through a period of hatred toward whites, and it took him some time to get over it,” Rieder says. “He would say that when he saw Malcom X on television, there would be times when he would feel that old bitterness rising.”
King wrote about that hatred as a graduate student at Crozer Theological Seminary, Rieder says. In a paper entitled, “Autobiography of Religious Development,” King wrote about how shocked he was to hear how his parents had been insulted by whites. King was once ordered to give up his bus seat for a white person and cursed as a “nigger.”
“As my parents discussed some of the tragedies … I was determined to hate every White person,” King wrote. “As I grew older and older this feeling continued to grow. … I did not conquer this anti-white feeling until I entered college.”
That bitterness pervades King’s letter.
King wrote that it was easy for White people to tell Blacks that they were moving too fast. But when you “have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will … when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ … you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
King declared in the letter that the “great stumbling block” toward Black freedom wasn’t the White racist “but the White moderate.”
Rieder says King identified with Black anger so much that when race riots spread across America in the mid-1960s, he refused to demonize Black rioters. King once said that a riot “is the language of the unheard.”
“It was his Christianity that wouldn’t allow him to hate, but he wasn’t alien to those feelings,” Rieder says. “He wasn’t above it. He never looked down on it.”
King was particularly angry at the White church. He expected support from Southern White churches, but said in the letter that most “have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
He even wonders in his letter, as he reminisces about passing beautiful White Southern churches during his travels, if they share the same faith:
“What kind of people worship here?” he asks. “Who is their God?”
James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology, says King was so angry because he loved his people.
“Love is passion,” says Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “If you love somebody and they are hurt, you are hurt, too. King identified with black people who had experienced injustice and humiliation. You can’t look at that and not get mad. King’s anger was expressed precisely in the letter.”