FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL (Martin Luther King Jr.)

(a rough draft)

NOTE: can be done as play or musical

 

by D. M. Larson

(using selections from Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

Copyright © 2002

All Rights Reserved

 



 

 

Cast of Characters

 

PRISONERS (parts can be doubled), GIRL, POLICE OFFICER, and DR. KING



 


Scene 1

 

(Lights come up on jail. Several criminals are in

their cells. They are scattered around the stage,

all in despair)

 

SONG: reflecting unhappy jail setting DEEP RIVER???

 

(Piano still plays during following movement:

Enter police officer and DR. KING. One prison

sees them enter and watches as KING is placed in

solitary confinement. Prisoner 2113 is shocked at

seeing KING in jail. In pantomime, KING asked

OFFICER for pen and paper. OFFICER reluctantly

nods and exits. KING is alone and sits.)

[Note: each prisoners character has a number and

not a name]

 

2113

(Turns to other prisoner)

You know what I saw?

 

6322

What?

 

2113

I saw Dr. King.

 

5341

You saw who?

 

2113

Dr. Martin Luther King.

 

3442

Here?

 

9112

No way. You're crazy. Dr. King wouldn't be here.

 

2113

But I saw him.

 

4306

I think you've been in here a little too long.

 

2113

But I swear I did.

 

8132

Give it a rest, will you.

 

2113

He's here. I'd know that man anywhere. So tall and proud. At least in pictures. He looks kind of sad now.

 

 

6322

I would be too if I were in jail.

(Prisoners laugh)

 

2113

Go ahead and laugh. I know what I saw. Laugh all you want. I'm not talking to you all anymore.

(2113 goes off alone)

 

SONG: reflect other prisoners laughter, but still jail's despair

 

(Piano still plays while OFFICER bring KING pen

and paper. Music fades when KING begins to write)

 

KING

"My dear fellow Clergymen,

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I [remembered] your recent statement calling our present activities 'unwise and untimely.' Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas...But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will...I would like to answer your statement..."

 

(KING goes silent. 2113 and 6322 are watching)

 

6322

What's he doing?

 

2113

Writing a letter I think.

 

6322

What for?

 

2133

Shhh. Listen.

 

 

?SONG: related to listening [to God]?????

 

 

 

KING

"I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham...Several months ago our local affiliate here in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program...So I am here, along with several members of my staff, because we were invited here. Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here...I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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 shall we afford to live with the narrow, provincial `outsider agitator' idea. Any one who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.

(KING pauses thoughtfully then continues)

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being...I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative."

 

(KING goes silent and prisoners speak)

 

6322

Just a bunch of fancy talking.

 

2113

It's far more than that. Didn't you hear? He's talking about us. He's talking about our people.

 

6322

It's all words, nothing more.

(6322 moves away. 5341 comes)

 

5341

Who's he writing to?

 

2113

Eight of Birmingham's leading white pastors.

 

5341

What for?

 

2113

They say King's causing trouble with all his demonstrations.

 

6322

So that's why King's in jail. He's only a trouble maker like the rest of us.

 

 

2113

He's here because he won't give up.

 

6322

It's no use. Why even try.

 

2113

But it's working.

 

6322

(Pointing to KING)

It sure doesn't look like it's working to me.

 

2113

You can't win with a few speeches. You have to keep fighting until the whites listen.

 

6322

They never listen to a letter like that.

 

2113

They'll have to.

 

6322

Or what? What is he going to do if they don't? He can't get nothing done without using a gun.

 

2113

You don't listen at all do you.

 

6322

No. You're the one who doesn't listen. Things will never change.

 

SONG: ?????

 

(Song fades as KING begins again)

 

KING

"Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than any city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal and unbelievable facts. On the basis of these conditions Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation."

 

6322

They'll never listen.

 

2113

They'll have to.

 

 

6322

How?

 

2113

Dr. King will show the way.

 

SONG: show the way, guiding light -???Onward Christian Soldier????

 

(Music fades and KING speaks)

 

KING

"You may well ask, `Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that 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...

(Pauses to think, then continues)

I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth...we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."

 

3442

(3442 joins 2113, 6332, and 5341)

Does Dr. King really believe this whole nightmare will end? Does in believe we can finally be free of the whites?

 

6332

We'll never be free of them.

 

2113

But maybe one day we can live together.

 

6332

Never.

 

2113

One day we will. One day we will see one of our people with one of theirs working together side by side; helping instead of hurting, building instead of fighting, and laughing instead of crying. One day we will live in peace.

 

SONG: song of peace ???Peace on Earth?????

(Music fades as KING begins to speak)

 

 

KING

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily give by the oppressor...For years now I have heard the words "Wait!"...This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never"...We must come to see...that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep on at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, `Wait.'"

 

(Prisoner 9112 is visited by her young daughter

who is brought in by a POLICE OFFICER)

 

GIRL

(Runs to mother, can't hug her because of bars)

Mama!

 

9112

Hi, how are you doing?

 

GIRL

Good. I miss you. When are you coming home?

 

9112

(Glances nervously at OFFICER)

Soon, I hope.

 

GIRL

I hope so.

(GIRL almost cries)

 

9112

Don't cry. It'll be okay.

 

GIRL

But I miss you. I want you home.

 

9112

I will be.

(Reaches and takes GIRL's hand)

When I get out, we'll do something special. Anything you want.

 

GIRL

Really?

 

9112

You name it, we'll do it.

 

GIRL

Anything?

 

 

9112

Nothing's too good for my girl.

 

GIRL

Could we go to Funtown?

(Pause)

 

9112

(Reluctant)

Uh...sure, honey, sure.

 

GIRL

(Excited)

Really, mama? Oh, thank you, mama!

 

9112

You'd better go.

 

GIRL

I love you, mama.

 

9112

I love you, too.

 

GIRL

Thank you.

(GIRL exits. 9112 is sad)

 

OFFICER

You can't take your daughter there. Funtown's for whites only. You know the rules.

 

9112

I had to tell her something.

 

OFFICER

I can't understand you people. Lying to your children.

(Exits)

 

9112

I don't understand how you can keep our children from happiness! If we got money, how come we can't go to your stupid Funtown?! We're not your slaves anymore. We're people just like you.

 

(9112 sits in tears. KING continues sadly)

 

 

KING

"You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people...

...you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: `Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'...

...you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading `white' and `colored'; when your name becomes `boy' (however old you are)

...you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mother and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim...you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalized and even kill you black brothers and sisters...

...There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience."

 

 

SONG: God's Got an Army???

 

(2113, 5341, and 3442 are gathered. 6332 stands

alone. 9112 joins them)

 

9112

Will we ever be free?

 

2113

Someday we will be. Someday.

 

6332

Someday ain't soon enough.

 

2113

It has to be.

 

6332

It can't be. We need action now. We can't wait for it to come to us. We have to demand it and take it. We have to be in control.

 

5341

But how? There's nothing we can do.

 

2113

There is a way.

 

 

6332

It sure ain't your way.

 

2113

But it is Dr. King's way and it will work. Dr. King will see us through.

 

6332

But when? When will it happen? I want to see it work now.

 

2113

There's no other way.

 

6332

Then we'll have to fight.

 

2113

You're hate will destroy you.

 

6332

My hate is what helps me to survive.

 

(Prisoners go silent as KING speaks)

 

KING

"...there are two types of laws: there are just and unjust laws...How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral lay or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law...Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any lay that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality...

...I hope you can see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationists would do. This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly (not hatefully as the white mothers did in New Orleans when they were seen on television screaming, foul words), and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law."

 

(6332 calls out angrily)

6332

How can any law be just if its made by the whites?

 

2113

If the law is moral and good...

 

6332

I don't believe any of that. He's just a law breaker like the rest of us.

 

2113

He only breaks the bad one.

 

6332

Well so do I.

 

2113

You don't listen do you.

 

6332

I heard all I needed to.

 

5341

So why is Dr. King in here anyway? What did he do?

 

6332

Let's ask.

(Calls)

Hey, policeman! Hey, I want to talk to you.

 

OFFICER

(Comes out)

What do you want?

 

6332

I got a question.

 

OFFICER

What is it?

 

6332

Why's Dr. King in here?

 

OFFICER

He had a parade without a permit.

 

6332

That's it.

 

OFFICER

It's enough.

 

2113

They just didn't want to have to hear Dr. King, that's all.

(OFFICER exits)

Disappointed?

 

6332

They sure have some dumb laws, don't they?

 

SONG:????

 

(Music fades as KING speaks)

 

 

KING

"We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was `legal'...[and] it was `illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal...I believe I would openly advocate disobeying [this law]. I must make [a confession] to you, Christian and Jewish brothers...I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the withe moderate who is more devoted to `order' than to justice...who constantly says, `I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until a `more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

 

(6322 speaks out angrily)

6322

How can we expect the whites to help us? If their church won't even help, who will?

 

2113

Some want to help.

 

6322

I haven't seen many.

 

2113

They are there.

 

SONG: ??working together - something about unity???

 

(KING begins as music fades)

 

 

KING

"Maybe I expected too much [from the white moderate]. I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed 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 white brothers have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still small all too small in quantity, but they are big in quality...[They] have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of angry policemen.' They, unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful `action' antidotes to combat the disease of segregation...

(Pauses then continues)

...I had the strange feeling...several years ago that we would have the support of the white church...I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause...I had hoped that each of you would understand...But again I have been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, `Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother'...In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, `Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern'..."

(KING sadly lowers his head)

 

(6322 and 2113 are alone. The others have left)

6322

(Speaks angrily)

If can't trust the church, who can you trust.

 

2113

Not all churches are bad.

 

6322

Most of the white ones are. They don't care about helping others, they only care about themselves.

 

2113

Some care.

 

6322

Not many.

 

2113

If only they read their Bibles.

 

 

6322

Did you know Jesus was a black man?

 

2113

What's that?

 

6322

He sure wasn't white. Not where he came from. They're all dark skin where he's from.

 

2113

Maybe that's why they don't listen to Jesus.

 

6322

"Love thy neighbors" and all that doesn't work anyway.

 

2113

It isn't easy, but we should try.

 

6322

I could never love them.

 

2113

Then they'll never love you.

 

 

SONG: ??song about loving one another...??

 

(KING speaks again when music fades)

KING

"...The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo...[It wants to keep] things as they are...I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world...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...Yes, they have gone jail with us. Some have been kicked out of their churches...But they have gone with faith...These men have been the leaven in the lump of the race...They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

(Pause, grows more confident)

I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently 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 the destiny of American."

 

(KING stops. 6322 sits, 2113 stands above him)

6322

I'm not America.

 

 

2113

We're all America. This is just as much our country as it is ours. As long as God is in heaven, America belongs to us.

 

6322

We're from Africa. We don't belong here.

 

2113

They're from Europe. We've been here just as long as they have.

(6322 doesn't argue)

The first Americans weren't white anyway. They were Indian. If anyone is more American, they are.

 

(4306 joins them)

4306

How come we are treated like we belong here?

 

6322

Cause we're still slaves in their eyes.

 

2113

Then we have to show them we're something more.

 

SONG: America or something like that?????

 

(Music fades and KING speaks)

 

KING

"Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to solid rock of human dignity...Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it."

 

 

SONG: "This Train" begins with 2113, then 4306 and 5341 join him; 3442 and 9112 starting singing after that until everyone except 6322 is singing.

 

(OFFICER enters angrily)

OFFICER

Quiet in here!

(Runs up to 2113 and pushes him down)

I said quiet!

(Singing stops. Silence)

What are you looking at?

(Pushes 9112 aside, 4306 goes to her)

I don't want to hear anymore out of you all.

 

5341

Sir?

 

 

OFFICER

What is it?

 

5341

What about our dinner? It's late tonight.

 

OFFICER

Well it ain't coming at all now.

(Silence as OFFICER leaves)

 

6322

(Stands above 2113)

That's your America.

 

2113

(Gets up and faces him)

No, that's yours.

(Walks away)

 

(KING speaks again)

KING

"I don't believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you will observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I'm sorry that I can't join you in your praise for the police department."

 

(KING pauses as 6332 goes to 2113)

6322

Do you think we will ever win?

 

2113

I don't know.

 

6322

Will it only get worse?

 

2113

Things will change; they have to. Our time has come.

 

6322

But how long will it take.

 

2113

It will be slow.

 

6322

I feel like I've been waiting too long already. I want to see it before I die.

 

2113

Me too, brother, me too.

 

(KING speaks again)

KING

"Never before have I written a letter so long (or should I say a book?). I'm afraid that 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 is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?

(Slight pause)

If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me."

 

SONG: "We Shall Overcome" is sung by all to close the play.

 

 

END OF PLAY


 


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