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Letter from a Birmingham Jail
The SCLC launched a campaign with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in April of 1963. They coordinated marches and sit-ins against segregation in Birmingham. In response, a judge made "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing" illegal. Having already committed to bailing out jailed protesters and running out of money, King was torn. In a meeting of various leaders, opinions were divided. How can they march and afford more bail money for more arrests? On the other hand, how can they back down now?
Deeply troubled, King told his colleagues he would pray over the decision alone in another room. He left, and the others waited for his return. Thirty minutes later, King reappeared wearing a new pair of blue-denim overalls. The group quieted, and King spoke with firmness. “The path is clear to me. I’ve got to march. I’ve got so many people depending on me. I’ve got to march.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 242)
Likewise, Jesus frequently separated from his disciples to pray.
King was arrested with Abernathy, local leader Fred Shuttlesworth, and others while marching to City Hall. While they were in jail, an open letter from eight local “moderate” white religious leaders was published as a newspaper ad titled “A Call for Unity.” The letter questioned the necessity and timing of the Birmingham civil rights protest. Though the moderates’ letter had been written and planned before the arrest of King and others, the timing of its appearance was unfortunate. King read their letter while he was in jail. He began writing a response in the margins of the newspaper, then on paper brought to him in his jail cell by a sympathetic trustee. Eventually he got paper from his lawyers, and they in turn smuggled it out. His colleagues pieced it together and it was eventually published in various newspapers and magazines around the country.
King's Birmingham mug shot
As the subtitle of Edward Gilbreath’s Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King’s Epic Challenge to the Church suggests, King presented an “epic challenge to the Church” in Birmingham. You may already know Paul wrote some letters (the epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians) to churches while in prison or house arrest. Notably, King refers to Paul’s “Macedonian call” in his letter, from Acts 16:9, “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” King was referring to the accusation of being outsiders coming to Birmingham unbidden:
I am in Birmingham 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 hometowns, 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 freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
King’s response was nearly 1,700 words while the original ad was barely 500. You can read the entire letter in King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait, or online at University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". TheInternet Archive has the "Call for Unity" and King's response as a PDF
King answers many of their objections. Their non-violence:
Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"
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.
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.
The “Call for Unity” charged that direct action was “such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed” to solving Birmingham’s problems. In other words, peaceful demonstrations are bad if they “incite” violence. King responded:
We need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.
The “more excellent way” echoes Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:31, introducing chapter 13, the famous “love” chapter used (somewhat out of context) in so many weddings. (“Though I speak with the tongues of and of angels, and have not love [charity], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…”)
The white religious leaders say that “extreme measures” are not “justified.” King responds:
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." [Matthew 5:44] Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." [Amos 5:24] Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." [Galatians 6:17] …. 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?
King complains about the church in general in its silent support of the status quo, a statement that echoes louder six decades later:
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 millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
King finishes the letter in a more personally conciliatory tone. He was soon released on bail. The campaign itself won minor concessions from the city, but more importantly, demonstrated the viciousness of southern segregation to the rest of the country as it saw televised footage of police dogs and fire hoses used on demonstrators. The audience included President Kennedy, who had also called Coretta King while King was in jail to assure her that the FBI had found King safe, and that he would be calling her soon, which he did.
Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth of Birmingham's bethel Baptist Church, who was jailed with King, said King was the leader of the Birmingham campaign because "God had chosen him to be the spokesman." (Birmingham Revolution, p. 53) Shuttlesworth also said about the Birmingham victory: "Maybe that's why we win, because Dr. King always said that unearned suffering has to be redemptive." (Birmingham Revolution, p. 118)
The SCLC, the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and others, despite often differing in opinions on strategy, planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On August 28, 1963, from 200,000 to 300,000 people – far above predictions, and about one-fifth white – crowded around the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, across the Mall to the Washington Monument. They heard music from Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, a choir, leaders of various religions and organizations, such as Roy Wilkins (NAACP), John Lewis (SNCC), A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Walter Reuther (UAW), James Farmer (CORE), and others; and of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Wikipedia has an image of the original program.)
|King on the Lincoln Memorial steps, August 28, 1963. |
AP file photo.
King’s speech started out slowly and lifted off when he went off-script with the “I have a dream” repetition, which he had used before. It is a rhetorical gem, often cited as one the best speeches of the century. From a Christian point of view, he uses the word “brotherhood” three times and the phrase “all God’s children” three times, and ends with “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last” (in the future, when we have “let freedom ring”).
He quotes the Bible from the prophet Amos:
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. [Amos 5:24]
The ninth and final “I have a dream” is from the prophet Isaiah:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. [Isaiah 40:4-5]
You can find the transcript of the speech here: https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety. You can find the audio recording here: https://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/A_76C3B93B557D4976A032C27C72ACED18
Moses has been a key biblical figure in the African-American church and spiritual songs from slavery times onward. In the Bible, Moses led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. (This takes up most of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.) Slaves who were introduced to Christianity were understandably drawn to this narrative.
The speech King gave the night before his assassination is haunting for anyone to hear, especially its finale. He foreshadows his death seemingly prophetically. However, as we have noted elsewhere, he was always aware of the danger of his mission and had been attacked many times. What struck me after becoming a Christian and reading the Bible, was the parallel to Moses in that same culminating section. Before I discuss that, there other parts of his 43-minute speech that foreshadow his impending death. King opens with a joke about the introduction he got from Ralph Abernathy:
As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It's always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you. And Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.
That heartfelt response seems almost like a goodbye. King goes on take a rhetorical trip through the history of the world to find the time in which he would most like to live. After considering all of history, he chooses the present time because he sees “God working in this period” even though the world is “all messed up” and the “nation is sick.” He goes on to urge unity and strength, and that “we aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody.” What we are saying, King said, is:
God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.
King expounds on the Good Samaritan parable, extending it to the civil rights movement and the Memphis sanitation workers strike (why he is in Memphis):
That's the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job.” Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.
King builds to the speech’s climax as he recalls being stabbed and lists all the things he would have missed had he died then. He then tells the crowd that the airplane he was on that morning had been delayed while they checked the plane and all its baggage (presumably for bombs) because of his presence. The end of the speech does seem like he foresaw his death:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
Moses, after leading the people out of slavery, was not allowed to enter the promised land, only to see it from atop Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34). Moses was being punished for an incident in Numbers 20:2-12, where he brought forth water out of a rock (for the second time), but did not follow God’s instructions, and also took credit for doing it, thereby committing disobedience and pride.
But I see some parallels between Dr. King and Moses beyond leading the people out of Egypt and the mountaintop. Moses was born a child of Israel, but was brought up in the house of Pharaoh, who was basically a king. Martin Luther King Jr’s father was the leader of an influential church in Atlanta and could have eventually inherited his position. His father was not happy to see him take on risky leadership positions and dangerous missions. But Martin Jr. went out on his own.
Moses killed an Egyptian and was exiled when God called him into service despite that crime. Martin might not have been an adulterer when he was called into service, but God would know his future.
Moses was reluctant when God told him what he needed to do, but eventually became bold, and would demand that Pharaoh let his people go. Martin did not immediately jump at the chance to lead his people to freedom, but he would eventually argue with presidents.
Moses sinned while getting water from the rock the second time, preventing him from entering the Promised Land. Perhaps adultery prevented King from the same.
Continue to Part 3, including Theological Journey, Was King a Communist?, Was King a Prophet?