Reflection on “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Martin+Luther+King+Jr+Infamous+mugshots+4RvZX1TdTG0lMonday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I took the opportunity to attend a celebration service at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Memphis, hosted by Bishop James Terry Steib, S.V.D. It was a festive gathering of amazing musicians, singers, drummers, dancers, and preachers. Together we were a wonderfully inspired colorful congregation, singing, clapping, amen-ing and rejoicing. Charged with this powerful spirit, I returned home that evening to read and reflect on some of the words and stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From a book given to me years ago by my son Matthew, “I Have a Dream, Writings and Speeches that Changed the World,” I read Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” He wrote this essay, in letter form in April 1963 while serving a jail sentence for participating in a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham.
This wonderful document was written in response to “A Call for Unity” and “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” which were written by “liberal” Birmingham white clergymen and published in Birmingham newspapers. The authors of those letters criticized the demonstrations led by “outsiders.” They advised the local “Negro Community,” to allow local officials and the courts to work out the issues of integration and civil rights. They felt the movements’ actions: sit-ins, demonstrations, and other non-violent methods advocated by Dr. King, were stirring up ill-will among the local black and white community. I was living in a small town in Mississippi a few years after this, and I vividly recall the white communities’ frequent castigation, of “outside agitators.” “Communist sympathizers…” “This is our issue; we don’t need outsiders telling us what to do.”
The essay/ letter is a beautiful and brilliant expression of frustration, logic, poetry, and most of all, a lucid explanation of how King’s approach to the civil rights movement, as opposed to more militant efforts, or just going along with the way things are, was so Christian, so Christ-centered. He must have found it confoundingly frustrating as to why these fellow Christian clergymen, just didn’t “get it.” In addition to their irritation with outside influences, they were saying to the Black community, “be patient, just wait, we can work this out together… “
“Just wait?!” It had been 100 years since the Emancipation Proclamation. A people previously bound in iron shackles and chains were now shackled by poverty, chained by lack of opportunity, held captive to low paying jobs; hopeless in the land of endless opportunity where, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. How could one pursue this promise of happiness without adequate schools, nutrition, security, opportunity?
There are many lessons and insights in the letter and I highly recommend you taking some time to read it for yourself, but one of the passages that struck me as still applying to our times, some 50 years later is in the following:
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I’m reminded of what it says in the book of Revelation: “So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” -Rev 3:16. That’s pretty serious stuff.
I’m also reminded of the famous quote from Edmund Burke: “All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.”
Dr. King is saying to me, I can be a nice guy on the outside, not a racist or a bigot by appearance. I can even empathize with the injustice of some people who do not have equal opportunity to the great American Dream, simply because of the color of their skin. But when I stand by, with apathy in my heart, and do not do my part, or speak out to ensure social justice for all people, in some ways I am worse than a rabid white supremacist. And Jesus tells me, I’m failing in my Christian calling. I must look past color in people, with not only my eyes, but also and especially with my heart.  Thank you Dr. King for your prophetic life.  The truth is not always comfortable, but as we know, it will set you free.

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