On 16 April 1963, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. The challenge of that time was racial segregation in the Southern United States of America. Having read his letter, it occurred to me that although we live in a different time, if Dr. King was alive today and was invited to St. Kitts-Nevis, he would, with as much conviction, be speaking out against the divisiveness of the politics of our time that has, like racial segregation of his time, divided both of our communities. What I will attempt to do is to preserve as best as I can the exact words and spirit of the letter and try to imagine what he would have written if he was arrested and charged with “disturbing the peace” and “destabilising the country” in bringing these issues to light, and was latter chastized by his clergymen who called his present activities “unwise and untimely.”
I am in no way belittling his plight and his struggle and I would be the first to categorically say that what he endured then was unimaginably worse than what we are enduring now; however, there may be several parallels in the events then and now that we can draw on as we attempt to free ourselves from the clutches of political tribalism, which truth be told is really a disguised form of mental slavery and political segregation.
It must also be noted that I am not equating racial segregation with political tribalism, as to do so would be pretentious and presumptuous of me. What I am trying to do is to use some creative licence in bringing to the fore and making relevant for our country today the spirit of his message, as there is so much we can learn from his letter, as there is no one I can think of who would be better than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to guide us during this most precious time of our growth and development.
The original letter can be found here: Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
17 June, 2012
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Basseterre city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” .. Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I am here in Basseterre, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” … Several months ago the Christian Council here in St. Kitts-Nevis asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here.
But more basically, I am in Basseterre because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of political detribalisation beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in St. Kitts-Nevis. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the Christian community can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the marches and demonstrations taking place in St. Kitts and Nevis. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about these ruminations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that marches are taking place in St. Kitts-Nevis, but it is even more unfortunate that the country’s power structure has left our community with no alternative.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Basseterre. There can be no gainsaying the fact that political tribalism engulfs this community. St. Kitts-Nevis is probably the most thoroughly divisive country in the Caribbean. Its ugly record of victimisation is widely known. Opposition supporters have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved murders in St. Kitts-Nevis than in any other country in the OECS. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, our community leaders sought to negotiate with the country leaders. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.
In 1993, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the Christian Council. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the participants–for example, use of the ZIZ radio by opposition parties. On the basis of these promises, the parties agreed to a moratorium on all rioting and demonstrations. As the years went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few promises like in Integrity in Public Life, briefly read in Parliament, was not passed. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification, something akin to a truth and reconciliation exercise that dismantled the apartheid system in South Africa. We began a series of workshops on detribalization, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are we able to accept leadership without speaking out for transparency, accountability and good governance?” “Are we able to endure the ordeal of divisiveness in our country?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Christmas season, as this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that the IMF program would be the cause of much hardships, we feel that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear also on the private community for the needed change.
Then it occurred to us that election was coming up in January 2010, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Opposition had piled up enough support to win the election, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the elections so as not to appear to be partisan. Like many others, we waited to see an election which would appear to be free and fair, and free from fear, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of tribalism and victimisation to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved country been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Basseterre is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the government time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the government must be prodded about as the previous one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Mr. Lindsey Grant as prime minister will bring the millennium to St. Kitts-Nevis. While Mr. Grant is a much more gentle person than Dr. Douglas, they are both political tribalists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Dr. Douglas will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to detribalisation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of human rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in human rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that power is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of tribalisation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every person 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.”
We have waited for 30 years for our constitutional and God given rights. …Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of victimisation to say, “Wait.” …But when you see the vast majority of your 50,000 countrymen and women smothering in an airtight cage of favouritism and victimisation 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 we can’t all get along, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that the civil service is closed to opposition supporter children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward the supporters of the other side; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do people treat other people so mean?”; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “Labour” and “Pam”; when your first name becomes “Labour dog”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Pam or Labour supporter, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “inferiorty”–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 the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Constitution and laws of the land, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All political tribal practices are unjust because tribalism distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives those in favour a false sense of superiority and the victimis a false sense of inferiority. Tribalisation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence tribalisation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not tribalisation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the Constitution, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey tribalisation practices, for they are morally wrong.
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that the powers-that-be compel its citizens to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a citizenry compels the powers-that-be to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a citizenry that, as a result of being denied true electoral reform, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of St. Kitts-Nevis which was based on tribalism was democratically elected? Throughout Nevis all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent citizens from becoming registered voters, and there are some parishes in which, even though CCM supporters constitute a majority of the parish, a significant number of CCM supporters were taken off the register and prevented from voting. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been refused many times to have a public meeting because I was denied a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a public meeting. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain tribalism and to deny citizens the constitutional privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid tribalist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In the United States of America, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the Chamber of Industry and Commerce. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that our great stumbling block in our stride toward freedom is not the PAM or Labour hardline supporters, but the business community, 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 from this form of mental slavery; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the citizens 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.
I had hoped that the Chamber of Industry and Commerce would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the business community would understand that the present tension in the Federation is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the citizen passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the business community would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a prominent doctor in Basseterre. He writes: “All Christians know that all citizens will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. 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; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of political tribalism to the solid rock of human dignity.
You speak of our activity in Basseterre as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in our community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of citizens who, as a result of long years of victimisation, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to tribalism; and in part of a few middle-class citizens who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by tribalism, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and I hope it never comes close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various civil groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Operation Rescue. Nourished by the citizen’s frustration over the continued existence of political tribalism, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in the political establishment …”
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the victimised. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of St. Kitts would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if the powers-that-be dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, thousands of citizens will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in party ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening political nightmare.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the oppressed. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his brothers of the OECS and the wider Caribbean, our citizen is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of political justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed our community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Kittitian-Nevisian citizen has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the government headquarters; … try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified; for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps St. Kitts-Nevis, the Caribbean and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
I had hoped that the business community would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the incumbent party can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the victimised;and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our elders in the country have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some – such as Sir Probyn Innis, Dwyer Astaphan, Richard Caines, Washington Archibald, Charles Wilkin, Emile Ferdinand, and Dr. Thelma Phillip-Browne have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of Basseterre… Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of tribalism. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Father Alric Francis, for your bold stand, at the funeral of the late Dr. Simean Daniel, in highlighting the divisiveness of the politics in the Federation. Watch “Sermon by FATHER ALRIC FRANCIS at Funeral Service for DR SIMEON DANIEL” on YouTube
But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the protests in Basseterre, a few months ago, I felt we would be supported by the evangelical association. I felt that the Christian Council would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the anti-victimisation movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to St. Kitts with the hope that the religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
…In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the citizens of this country, I have watched the churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of political injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have travelled the length and breadth of the parishes of St. Kitts and Nevis. On sweltering hot days and crisp rainy mornings I have looked at the beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? … Where were they when our political leader gave a clarion call to put party above all else? Where were their voices of support when disenchanted Kittitian and Nevision men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of thousand, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twenty-first century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom from our tribal politics. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Basseterre with us. They have gone down the roads of Nevis for the right to vote. … Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in St. Kitts and Nevis, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom from tribalism in St. Kitts and Nevis, because the goal of every citizen is freedom from this type of mental slavery. Frustrated and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with that of our brothers’ in the diaspora. Before the British claimed St. Kitts;and Nevis as their own, we were here. Before the pen of Robert Bradsahw and Dr. Kennedy Simmonds etched the majestic words of our respective Statehood and Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made sugar-cane 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. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the St.Kitts-Nevis police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” …. I cannot join you in your praise of the St. Kitts-Nevis police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of tribalisation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps our Commissioner of Police and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was has his counterpart in Nevis, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of political tribalism. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
I wish you had commended the marchers and demonstrators for their sublime courage, their willingness to stand up and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day St. Kitts and Nevis will recognize its real heroes. They will be the Robert Bradshaws, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Tabernacle, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided to walk with Operation Rescue, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently standing up at the protest rallies and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the St. Kitts and Nevis will know that when these disinherited children of God put country above party and above self, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the Kittitian and Nevisian dream and for the most sacred values in our Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and our Independence.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of political divisiveness 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 their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.
King, Martin Luther Jr.
3 thoughts on “Letter from a Basseterre Jail”
Truly impressive. I revelled in every word. Thank you very much. WBAT
It was so long ago that I read Dr. Martin Luther’s letter that I had forgotten the sense and reasoning contained therein.. You have used his letter correctly in reference to our ongoing political situation in our Federation.