TIME Civil Rights

Why MLK Was Jailed in Birmingham

CIVIL RIGHTS MARCH
AP Photo Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., right are taken by a policeman as they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Ala., on April 12, 1963. This is the photograph that ran with TIME's original coverage of their arrests.

King wrote the famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963

In the spring of 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., it seemed like progress was finally being made on civil rights. The notoriously violent segregationist police commissioner “Bull” Connor had lost his run-off bid for mayor, and despite Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that the city was the most segregated in the nation, protests were starting to be met with quiet resignation rather than uproar.

At least that’s what TIME thought: in the April 19 issue of that year, under the headline “Poorly Timed Protest,” the magazine cast King as an outsider who did not consult the city’s local activists and leaders before making demands that set back Birmingham’s progress and drew Bull Connor’s ire. “Last week Connor and Police Chief Jamie Moore got an injunction against all demonstrations from a state court,” TIME reported. “King announced that he would ignore it, led some 1,000 Negroes toward the business district. Both King and one of his top aides, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, were promptly thrown into jail.”

King was in jail for about a week before being released on bond, and it was clear that TIME’s editors weren’t the only group that thought he had made a misstep in Birmingham.

On the day of his arrest, a group of clergymen wrote an open letter in which they called for the community to renounce protest tactics that caused unrest in the community, to do so in court and “not in the streets.” It was that letter that prompted King to draft, on this day, April 16, the famous document known as Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

In 1967, King ended up spending another five days in jail in Birmingham, along with three others, after their appeals of their contempt convictions failed. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Walker v. City of Birmingham that they were in fact in contempt of court because they could not test the constitutionality of the injunction without going through the motions of applying for the parade permit that the city had announced they would not receive if they did apply for one. The decision prompted King to write, in a statement, that though he believed the Supreme Court decision set a dangerous precedent, he would accept the consequences willingly. “Our purpose when practicing civil disobedience is to call attention to the injustice or to an unjust law which we seek to change,” he wrote—and going to jail, and eloquently explaining why, would do just that.

Need more proof that the original letter was convincing? Though TIME dismissed the protests when they first occurred, that letter was included was included in the issue the following January in which King was named the Man of the Year for 1963. “Although in the tumble of events then and since, it never got the notice it deserved,” the magazine noted, “it may yet live as a classic expression of the Negro revolution of 1963.”

Read excerpts from the letter, which was included in Martin Luther King Jr’s Man of the Year cover story, here in the TIME Vault: Letter from a Birmingham Jail

TIME social justice

Why Tweeting Can’t Replace a Civil Rights March

March2Justice demonstration calling for criminal justice reform, Staten Island, New York, America - 13 Apr 2015
MediaPunch/REX Shutterstock March2Justice demonstration calling for criminal justice reform, Staten Island, New York, April 13, 2015.

Erica Williams Simon is a cultural critic, speaker and media maker. She is also a deputy editor for Upworthy.com and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

"March 2 Justice" activists embark on a 250 mile march from New York to Washington, DC. But do old-school demonstrations do any good?

It sounds like a scene from the movie Selma.

100 plus people are marching across a bridge chanting and holding signs that demand justice. They are activists, artists, ministers, young mothers and fathers, children, students, the formerly incarcerated and everyone in between. They are black, white and brown, Christian and Muslim, atheist and agnostic. They have been meeting in the evenings, after full days of work at their respective jobs, in conference rooms and church basements and schools for the past several months. They’ve carefully planned their route, they’ve trained their bodies and thought through their response to any opposition that they might face on their journey, some of which has already come from local officials decrying their march as for no other reason than to “make a scene.”

But this isn’t 1965. It’s 2015. The bridge isn’t the Edmund Pettus but New York City’s Outerbridge Crossing in Staten Island, the borough where Eric Garner was killed on camera by police chokehold just last year. They aren’t wearing hats and suits but instead hoodies and jeans. And they aren’t marching from Selma to Montgomery. They are walking the 250 miles from New York to Washington DC to take a stand for justice and deliver what they are calling a “Justice Package” to Congress: legislative proposals that aim to end racial profiling, demilitarize the police force, and invest in community based alternatives to incarceration for young people.

MORE TIME’s cover story: In the Line of Fire

Led by Justice League NYC, a task force of juvenile and criminal justice advocates, artists and formerly incarcerated people brought together in response to the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, the diverse group of overwhelmingly young marchers began their walk on Monday morning. Over the next week, they will stop in Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and finally Washington DC on Tuesday, April 21st. Their arrival will be marked by a march through the city, a press conference to present their proposals and a stop on the West Lawn of the Capitol at 5pm for a rally and concert.

It all sounds lovely. And inspiring. And…oh so dated.

At least, that was my first thought months ago when hearing about the plans for this “March 2 Justice.”

Why are “we” (those of us who care deeply about civil and human rights) still marching in 2015? What good does it do? With all of the other modern, technological, creative avenues that we have for change, why march?

Sure, there is precedent for Millennial marching that makes a difference. In 2010, four undocumented immigrant students walked 1500 miles from Florida to Washington during the “Trail of Dreams,” to support the passage of the DREAM Act and many credit their trek as a turning point in the fight for and 2012 end to the deportation of young people as outlined in the Act.

But in a 24 hour news cycle where no single story can hold the public’s attention for more than a day, and in a climate that has gotten all too used to seeing peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, no longer finding them particularly disruptive or worthy of special consideration, I still wasn’t convinced that this march, as well intended as it is, would actually serve a purpose.

At least not until last week, when I saw the video footage of Walter Scott being shot in cold blood in North Charleston, South Carolina.

I sat staring at my screen and for the first time in over a decade of activism as a policy advocate and youth organizer, I felt no anger, only numbness. I didn’t read any articles. I didn’t tweet or update my Facebook status or sign a online petition. Instead I did what countless others have done far too many times throughout history and that which our spirit often longs to do in the face of repeated, sustained trauma: I turned away.

I didn’t want to see anymore. I didn’t want to be reminded of how dangerous and unfair our beloved country is for me, my future children and for people who share my skin color. I wanted to do… nothing. I wanted to be still and hope that magically, somehow, things would get better without me having to exert any more emotional energy.

And then it hit me:

This too is why they march. To physically move when even the most passionate among us long to be still and to turn away. To fight inertia. To walk through the pain towards freedom. To remind the nation that while everyone else goes to work, takes care of their families, sleeps and turns away, someone must keep moving. Their march is a reminder that if we commit to continued, sustained, unglamorous forward movement, our activism can truly be a disruptive force for change in American life. But we must walk the walk — long, slow and steady.

To be fair, the leaders of the march have their own strategic reasons that have nothing to do with my symbolic analysis. Their reasons can be found searching the hashtag #whywemarch on Twitter. And the Justice League NYC is doing everything right to make sure that there are tangible, political outcomes. They have clear legislative asks in their Justice Package and have done a tremendous amount of work to garner the support of over 124 organizations, elected officials and media figures. And, of course, they will be registering voters all along the way.

But for me, the value of the march isn’t dependent upon how much media coverage they get, how many voters they register or how well the bills they propose are received on Capitol Hill.

The meaning is the medium. The gap between those victorious civil rights champions who came before us and those who walk today is closed a little with each step — and so is the distance between us and justice. At least, that is what we hope. So for the rest of us, I send them gratitude, wish them safety and promise this: We will all, in our way, keep marching.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME World

Runners ‘In Tears’ After Mistake Adds Miles to Race

Some runners were "in tears"

Hundreds of runners participating in a U.K. race ran two extra miles after a race marshal moved from position.

About 300 of the 1,200 runners unknowingly completed the extra miles during the Bournemouth Bay Run on Sunday, according to the BBC. The race was supposed to be about six miles, but many ran about eight because the marshall wasn’t there to alert runners where to turn.

“To have a race of that scale with only one marshal on a point is inexcusable,” a pregnant woman told the BBC. “We saw loads of people walking at the end, some were in tears, I felt so sorry for them.”

Race participants who believe they ran the two extra miles have been told to contact the race council for a “goodwill gesture.” The race raised funds for the British Heart Foundation.

[BBC]

TIME Race

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn: Officers Are Depressed by the Current Climate

Ed Flynn is the Milwaukee police chief.

Every one of these well-documented instances sets us back

I’ve been in policing for over 40 years. What we saw on the video of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shooting unarmed Walter Scott eight times is the clearest example of documented wrongdoing I’ve ever seen. It’s not even a close call.

It’s one thing to identify with an officer needing to make split-second decisions under pressure in violent circumstances with insufficient information who reacts to a perceived or actual threat. That happens every day in America. Sometimes officers trying their best shoot and kill someone who is not the threat they perceived. It’s analogous to soldiers overseas who are clearing a village. One person fires a round, then everybody fires a round, and we have a tragic circumstance. Those troopers aren’t trying to be criminal, but nonetheless it’s tragic.

I have been in circumstances where officers are trying to operate with the best of intentions but still engage in questionable uses of deadly force. People want to put them in jail over an error in judgment. It’s not malice. It’s not obvious recklessness or wantonness. But what we saw on this video is not that. I don’t know a law enforcement professional who trains their officers to shoot unarmed, fleeing suspects. This is unambiguous. There’s no gray area when it comes to that. Officers know you don’t do that.

I started policing in the early 1970s. To say that policing is remotely like it was then is just wrong and foolish. There have been enormous improvements. One of the great ironies in American policing is that because of these highly controversial events that have been documented, there’s a perception that the profession is somehow out of control or failing in its responsibilities to engage in fair and impartial policing. That is of great concern. We cannot be believed if we don’t take decisive actions when our officers are clearly wrong. Bad police performance that’s not motivated by malice needs to be dealt with very sternly, including termination. But not every police error is necessarily something that should result in jail.

I fired an officer for bad judgment that resulted in the death of Dontre Hamilton, who grabbed a Milwaukee officer’s police baton and was shot 14 times by Officer Christopher Manney. The officer’s approach was wrong and in violation of our training, and I fired him. That’s an appropriate sanction to something that was unmotivated by malice. The challenge is: Are we doing enough of that? Prison isn’t necessarily the appropriate sanction any more than it is for a surgeon who engages in a botched operation.

Every one of these well-documented instances sets us back. It doesn’t matter where. Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. They all get judged by what happens in Wherever, USA. All too often, stories drive policy, not data. But look at the data in every big city. There have been significant declines in the use of force. With all due respect to the motives of those who take to the streets, it’s far easier to mobilize against perceived misconduct than to deal with systemic disparate violence in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Our officers are depressed by the current environment today. They’re judged by the worst example anywhere in the country. It affects their work. Officers are fearful that every action is going to be judged with the worst possible presumptions. I look at the case in South Carolina, and it’s clear that this is a wrongful use of force. Generally speaking, cops in that environment are highly sensitive now to how they will be judged when they think they’re trying to do the right thing.

The way you prevent something like this from happening again is training and supervision. I feel right now that we’re at a critical point in terms of the public consensus about what the police are doing in the communities that need them the most. But there will be times when individuals go off the grid. There are no guarantees when it comes to human conduct. That’s what we have to understand. Bad doctors are bad doctors even though they went to good medical schools. And sometimes bad cops are bad cops even if they’ve gone through training and passed the test.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Philadelphia Police Commissioner: This Is a Defining Moment for Our Profession

People participate in a rally to protest the death of Walter Scott after he was shot and killed by police officer Michael Slager, outside City Hall on April 8, 2015 in North Charleston, S.C.
Richard Ellis—Getty Images People participate in a rally to protest the death of Walter Scott after he was shot and killed by police officer Michael Slager, outside City Hall on April 8, 2015 in North Charleston, S.C.

Charles Ramsey is the Philadelphia police commissioner.

It takes events like these to force the kind of change that’s necessary

When I walked into work after seeing the horrific video of the shooting in North Charleston, S.C., everyone I saw was just shaking their heads. They knew it was terrible. It’s a terrible tragedy for Walter Scott’s family. And it’s another black mark for police at a time when we can least afford one.

This is a defining moment for our profession. There is a lot of tension that has been boiling beneath the surface for a long time. Tragic as this shooting is, it takes events like these to force the kind of change that’s necessary.

Police officers need to use better judgment. We need to implement more reality-based training programs that allow cops to better prepare for these life-or-death decisions. Every scenario is different — there are times when officers have no time or cause to use non-lethal options — but all cops need to be trained in a range of responses. Sometimes poor tactics put officers in positions where they resort to deadly force that could have been avoided.

The shooting also shows what a powerful and important tool cameras can be. The cell phone video in South Carolina begins only after something drew the witness’s attention to what was happening. If we equipped more officers with body cameras, we could be able to capture every single incidence from beginning to end, allowing the public to get a full picture, not just a partial one.

This is a hard time to be in this business because the majority of cops do their jobs very well. We’ve got 18,000 police departments in America, and the notion that a majority of them are out of control is not accurate. We all need to work toward understanding each other. Whether you’re talking about black lives matter or all lives matter, don’t limit the conversation to shootings that involve police. The majority of homicides are not the result of police shootings. In Philadelphia, more than 80% of our homicide victims are African American — including Officer Robert Wilson III, who was killed in the line of duty on March 5. Those lives matter, too.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

This Maya Angelou Stamp Has a Quote From Another Poet and Won’t be Reissued

First lady Michelle Obama participates in the unveiling of the Maya Angelou Forever Stamp, Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at the Warner Theater in Washington D.C.
Jacquelyn Martin—AP First lady Michelle Obama participates in the unveiling of the Maya Angelou Forever Stamp, Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at the Warner Theater in Washington D.C.

The U.S. Postal Service was made aware of the error earlier this week

The U.S. Postal Service said Wednesday it would not reissue a recently released Maya Angelou memorial stamp that prominently features a quote from another author.

USPS spokesman David Partenheimer told the New York Times that the quote — “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song” — was often cited by the late poet during interviews, but it was written by Joan Walsh Anglund in 1967. (Angelou never took credit for the quotation.)

“The sentence held great meaning for her, and she is publicly identified with its popularity,” Partenheimer told the Times.

The USPS was made aware of the error on Monday by the Washington Post and told the newspaper they had not known the original, which appears in Anglud’s volume of verse A Cup of Sun.

The 89-year-old Anglund has taken the mistake in her stride. “I think it easily happens sometimes that people hear something, and it’s kind of going into your subconscious and you don’t realize it,” she told the Post.

This is not the first such mistake. President Obama falsely attributed the sentence to Angelou during the presentation of the 2013 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal.

The stamp was released on Tuesday during an event in Washington D.C. that included First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, activist and poet Nikki Giovanni and Angelou’s grandson Colin Johnson.

[New York Times]

TIME Race

Errol Morris: Documentary of a Murder

North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is seen allegedly shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he runs away, in this still image from video in North Charleston, S.C. taken April 4, 2015.
Reuters North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is seen allegedly shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he runs away, in this still image from video in North Charleston, S.C. taken April 4, 2015.

Morris is a writer and an Academy Award–winning filmmaker.

The camera vs. the police officer’s account gives us a powerful story

My son called me Tuesday night to tell me about “a disgusting video.” I watched it, appalled. But what to make of it? I can report what I have seen — the cold-blooded murder of a black man. But the video is so much more. It is simultaneously a video of a murder and the cover-up of a murder. We are not just treated to eight shots being fired toward the suspect’s back, but also to the police officer’s apparent failure to offer any kind of medical assistance.

So what to make of it? Photography doesn’t offer proof of anything. It merely supplies additional evidence, which otherwise might not be available. The evidence here is crucial because it is in conflict with the police officer’s own story. We wouldn’t know much without the video. And we wouldn’t have the video save for the courageous observer with a cell phone who possibly risked his life in filming the incident.

Every time there is a police killing of an unarmed black man that goes unpunished, racism is rewarded. Simple as that. The camera vs. the police officer’s account gives us a powerful story. But what are we as a society going to do with it? It’s not a problem that can be magically fixed with cameras. Cameras can offer evidence, but they can’t tell us what to do with that evidence. Here, we have to decide what to do about it. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey put it this way: “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.” When you’re wrong, you’re wrong? Bad decision? No, not a bad decision. Racism and murder, and we should face up to that.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Howard Safir: Police Brutality Is Inexcusable — and Rare

Howard Safir is the former commissioner of the New York City Police Department (1996-2000) and Chairman and CEO of Vigilant Resources International (VRI).

To ascribe negative traits to the majority of police officers is wrong

The shooting in North Charleston, S.C., is an enormous tragedy. The horrific video that is now being seen around the world will do a great deal to hurt the image of police officers and police departments.

Are our police departments brutal, racist, and out of control? By every objective measure they are not. When we have incidents like the Brown case in Ferguson and the Garner case in New York, the media paints with a broad brush, as if these were the norm. That is not the case. Only 1% of encounters between police and citizens result in any use of force at all. Every year hundreds of thousands of police officers put their uniforms on and have millions of interactions with the public. In 9 out of 10 cases, citizens are happy with the interaction, and in 99 out of 100, no force is used. Police brutality and misconduct are inexcusable. They are also relatively rare. Police officers are human beings — they make mistakes and sometimes even commit criminal acts. When that happens, they should be held accountable, and they are.

Police officers have seconds to decide whether to use their firearms in any given violent confrontation. The general rule is that it must be in protection of your own life or the life of another. Those seconds, and the training and judgment of the individual police officer, change everyone’s lives forever. Having been involved in a shooting early in my career, I ­remember to this day how quickly it all ­developed, and how I reacted instinctively based on my training. If an officer hesitates too long, he could indeed join the 126 who lost their lives in the line of duty last year.

Our citizens gain nothing from demoralized police forces that believe they do not have public support. Demoralized forces will not be as effective as they can be, and that would have a tremendously negative impact on public safety. Effective police departments rely on the public and the community every day. It must not be “us vs. them” but officers and civilians working together to protect law-abiding citizens.

Policing is a noble profession. Men and women put their lives on the line every day. When one of them commits a crime, or is racist or brutal, swift and appropriate punishment should be carried out. But to ascribe these traits to the majority of police officers is wrong and untrue.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Martin and Brown Attorney: How Many More Videos Will It Take, America?

North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is seen allegedly shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he runs away, in this still image from video in North Charleston, S.C. taken April 4, 2015.
Reuters North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is seen allegedly shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he runs away, in this still image from video in North Charleston, S.C. taken April 4, 2015.

Benjamin Crump is an attorney who represents the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice.

We must stop taking the standard police narrative at face value

What started out as a routine traffic stop quickly escalated into the death of Walter Scott. The city of North Charleston, S.C., was all too willing to accept the officer’s version of events, even though the physical evidence clearly showed that the officer had fired eight shots, with four of the eight shots fired hitting Scott in the back.

Far too often the police come up with the same narrative: I felt threatened, I felt afraid, the victim struggled with me, he reached for my gun. This is the same old story from officers that shoot unarmed black men. If not for the video, the officer would have been believed and his story would never have been questioned by the justice system or city officials.

I’ve represented dozens of families of unarmed people of color who have been killed by police officers. And if I had a dollar for every time the reason given by the police was that “they reached for my weapon” or “they attacked me and I felt in fear for my life,” I wouldn’t have enough room in my pockets. What’s sad is how often the police narrative is accepted, with no one but the family raising questions. The death of an unarmed individual is swept under the rug. Walter Scott’s death was well on the way to being swept under the rug—but for the video. Therein lies the problem.

This video was shocking to much of America, but for many of us it was a scene we have experienced so many times in our communities that we weren’t shocked at all. When I saw it, I imagined how many times evidence has been planted, how ­many times untrue stories have been given as official statements, to help justify the killing of innocent people of color. “Without the video … it would be difficult for us to ascertain exactly what did occur,” the mayor of the North Charleston, Keith Summey, said. But is that really true? I do not agree that it would be difficult. An unarmed black man is shot multiple times from behind while he is fleeing from an officer? That does not point to justified use of deadly force.

If this video shocked you, how about the video of the beating of Floyd Dent in Inkster, Mich., or the video of the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio? What about the video of the shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, and the video of the beating of Alesia Thomas, in Los Angeles, both of whom later died?

Why are we still automatically accepting the police narrative? How many shocking videos of police misconduct do we need to show you, America, before you quit accepting the narrative?

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers, referring to his officers, said, “One does not throw a blanket across the many.” I agree with this statement. It should also apply to black men and all people of color.

There is a blanket of distrust, disrespect and indifference that has been thrown across black men in America. And it is resulting in too many deaths at hands of armed police officers who claim they are afraid.

Crump is an attorney who represents the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Nothing Less Than an Assassination

It just adds another body to the body count

Another day, another black man murdered by police.

The problem is that we’re not all on the same page about what we’re outraged over and what changes we want to take place. Police critics will claim this is another example of systemic police racism. Police defenders will claim that this was just one bad apple. We will hear the same calls for more oversight, the same protests that civilians are interfering in matters they couldn’t possibly understand.

African Americans feel like ­Alex in A Clockwork Orange, forced to watch the same news story playing over and over on some hellish loop: “Unarmed Black Man Killed by Police.” We scream, we try to turn away, but we can’t. There’s always another prone body on the screen.

MORE Man Who Filmed South Carolina Police Shooting Speaks Out

Walter Scott’s killing should inspire less debate than other recent incidents because of the video. Watching the officer shoot an unarmed, nonthreatening man eight times makes it difficult to see this as anything less than an assassination. It sheds no new light. It just adds another body to the body count.

But Walter Scott does not have to be just another tragic name. It is up to us to not let his death be trivialized. If watching this video doesn’t convince holdouts that racism exists, nothing will. Does anyone ­really think the officer would have shot Scott if he were white? Racism deniers are like climate-change deniers, letting their hopes blind them to the harsh reality of facts and statistics and blood.

Scott’s death illustrates the need to push harder for the police reforms that are already in the works: more training, more intense oversight by civilians, body cameras and a zero-tolerance policy toward police officers who let their personal biases influence their actions. We need to be as relentless as the racism we’re fighting.

Read next: What to Know About the South Carolina Cop Accused of Murdering Walter Scott

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