Sunday, April 15, 2018

Reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Today

Early this month the news media and the Internet were replete with articles about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s tragic assassination on April 4, 1968. This article is about King’s powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written five years earlier.
King Arrested
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded (with a slightly different name) in February 1957. MLK, Jr., one of the co-founders, was its first president. 
SCLC was a regional expansion of the local work, primarily the bus boycott, that King and his associates had begun earlier in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
In April 1963, SCLC joined with anti-segregation activities in Birmingham, Alabama. The ensuing “Birmingham Campaign” included mass meetings, marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and other nonviolent activities. In response/reaction, on Apil 10 the city officials obtained a state circuit court injunction against the protests.
Two days later, on Good Friday, King was arrested for violating the anti-protest injunction and was placed in solitary confinement in the Birmingham city jail.
King Writes
On the day King was arrested, eight Birmingham clergymen (and they were all men) published a statement in the local newspapers criticizing the protests led by King. In many ways, it seems to have been a good and reasonable statement. (Read it here.)
Those clergymen were the “white moderates” of the city, a cut above the abundant bigots of Birmingham. But still . . . .
In response, using the margins of the newspaper and even toilet paper, King penned what became one of his most powerful writings, his nearly 7,000-word “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
King's lengthy letter was made public on April 16, 1963, and now 55 years later it is still well worth reading—and considering thoughtfully. (Here is a link to it.)
MLK’s letter was included in his book Why We Can’t Wait, first published in 1964—and it was Birmingham's religious leaders' appeal for patience that King objected to the most. After all, the Civil War had been over for nearly a century—and most African-Americans were still by no means fully free.
Here are some of the most important statements in King’s letter:
  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  • Lamentably,  . . . it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
  • Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
  • Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill 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.
  • . . . nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. 
King Challenges
Now, 55 years after King first penned his letter, we who bask in the “blessing” of “majority privilege”—the advantages those of us who are white, and/or male, and/or Christian enjoy in this country—need to take MLK’s words to heart.
We need, for example, to listen to the challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement. And we must not excuse present injustices felt/suffered by people of minority by pointing out (’splaining) how things are much better than they used to be.
In many ways, certainly, things are better for people of color now than they were in 1963. But that doesn’t make the injustices of the present any less painful, and those who suffer injustices now won’t be encouraged by hearing that perhaps in another 55 years there may well be full equality, racial and otherwise.


  1. Thank you for writing this. It seems to me that true scripture gets written over centuries and this is part of scripture now. Luther’s writings might also be included along with others.

    1. Thanks for reading and posting comments, Lonnie.

      You may be interested to know that local Thinking Friend David Nelson, a former Lutheran pastor, made a similar comment: "This letter is my recommendation for inclusion in The Canon of Christianity."

  2. Wow on both letters!
    It is difficult to accept how supposed Christians could Not support Dr. King and the important truths that he expoused. I would hope to think that I would have supported him and his just movement.
    Thanks Leroy for your excellent Blog and reminding us that our LORD loves us All equally and died for us All, not just the supposed privileged few.
    Blessings, to All,
    John(Tim) Carr

  3. Sadly, this reminds me of the recent history of gun control. Every time there is a mass shooting, many loud voices say that now is not the time to act, now is the time to honor the dead. Then a few days later the subject is changed. Slowly, tragedy by tragedy, resistance is growing to this sleight of hand. Yet still nothing changes. Maybe someday. The death rate from American guns is fairly steady, so perhaps we have a long time to finally fix it. Unlike, say, global warming, where we may be about out of second chances. America should honor its dead by learning from the civilized nations of the world. We are the new barbarians.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot, who is a lifelong Catholic Sister, sent me an email yesterday that included the following comments:

    "Leroy, I just completed a reading of King's Letter. I never read it fully--only previously read quotes and heard folks' reactions.

    "I am stunned by Martin's choice of words, poetic expression, depth of goodness, commitment to justice and truth. He exudes with passion Jesus' message and startles me with his clarity, wisdom and truth. It gives me an insight into the man who 'had a dream.'

    "After Vatican Council II our new revised Catholic catechisms taught Love of God through the story of King. We had a huge challenge to turn our eyes from 'shoulds and oughts' of dogma and law--our eyes were turned to Jesus with Martin as a model. The VC II ended in 1965--the new books were out only a few years later. How refreshing!

    "Reading Martin's letter this morning was a work of the Spirit! And I thank you for the text!"

  5. Yesterday evening I also received this brief comment from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "We need to read this again and again. Thanks for reminding us, Leroy."

  6. Later yesterday evening I received an email from a Thinking Friend in Arizona. Here is one sentence he shared with me:

    "MLK is a great man and has done so much to forward human rights. I just don't like the man and the reason I use is the sordid personal life he lived."

    1. Well, I certainly don't condone the extra-marital activity of King, which greatly saddened me when I first realized those charges were true. But like many other great men, including King David in Old Testament times, King should be evaluated mainly by the highly significant things he accomplished--and by the total impact of his life--rather than by his moral failings in his personal life.

  7. Thinking Friend Graham Hales in Mississippi posted sent me these comments by email:

    "When we look back to the days of segregation and the inhumanities suffered by our black brothers and sisters, it seems so long ago. Another time and place. But, today, so many injustices remain and in most of our hearts lies the remnants of racial judgment and blindness. If each of us would live as if the Kingdom had come and treat others as members of God's family, we could make some progress. Agreed?