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An Excerpt From Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Letter From Birmingham Jail'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Had he not been assassinated in 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would have celebrated his 90th birthday last week. Today, on the federal holiday dedicated to him and his legacy, we take a moment to do just that.

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JAMES EARL JONES: (Reading) We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.

CORNISH: That's actor James Earl Jones reading from King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched the Birmingham campaign in 1963, a series of nonviolent protests and boycotts in that Alabama city meant to pressure businesses to desegregate and business owners to hire people of all races. On Good Friday, King and other black protesters were arrested and jailed for parading without a permit.

While there, he was given a copy of an open letter about the protest. It was written by eight white Alabama clergymen. They said they recognize the, quote, "natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized." They also called the protest unwise and untimely and suggested local protesters abandon demonstrations and negotiate instead. King took that to be yet another way of saying wait. He was tired of hearing wait.

Here are selections from his response read by James Earl Jones. It contains words many found offensive then and many will find offensive now.

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JONES: (Reading) We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen the hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading white and colored; when your first name becomes nigger and your middle name becomes boy, however old you are, and your last name becomes John; and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title Mrs.; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly on tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of nobodiness, 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 injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

CORNISH: James Earl Jones reading an excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail." It was recorded in New York City in 1988 at the 92nd Street Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.