If you’ve never read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” do two things. First, ask yourself, “Why not?” Then, check it out. And if you have, it never hurts to look at it again.
King’s letter is a long response to Birmingham ministers who had criticized the demonstrations in Birmingham. The Birmingham movement in the spring of 1963 is a terrific story in and of itself, too long to recount here. In his response, King moves effortlessly through an array of different subjects: why he’s in Birmingham, why the demonstrations were immediately necessary, the justice of civil disobedience, his disappointment with the lack of support from white moderates and white churches, and his defense of the protesters as the “real heroes” of the South.
What to do with such a letter? I think that there are some great illustrations of larger truths about Dr. King and the civil rights movement.
- King’s theology has an interesting combination of roots. Growing up in the black evangelical tradition, his theological training was in the liberal Protestant tradition. To me, this means that his sermons and writings always seemed to draw heavily from both, fitting comfortably in neither category. King’s liberal theology essentially taught him that the peace and brotherhood of Heaven could come on earth, drawing on the Social Gospel theology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as other sources. The idea was to create a “beloved community.” You can see this thought running through the letter as he talks about “the gospel of freedom” and the ideal of brotherhood as something to be achieved in this world. It’s my understanding that white fundamentalists and evangelicals were somewhat underground during this time with the more mainline liberal churches in the forefront, but King must have worked with many evangelically-minded black ministers in his time and also was good friends with Billy Graham.
- I don’t know if there was a bigger fan of American ideals in the late 1950s and early 1960s than King. The “I Have a Dream” speech is a great example of this, and the Birmingham letter offers examples of this as well. Expressing his faith in liberal American ideals, King hoped that African Americans could someday join American society as equals, overturning segregation with “integration” into the mainstream of the nation. As his emotional discussion of the heroes of the movement concludes:
One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
- At the same time, you can also see the seeds of King’s change of heart in the later 1960s. The Birmingham letter locates America’s racial problems almost entirely in the South, if my reading is correct. He calls Birmingham “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” Yet when King tried to take the movement to my hometown of Chicago in 1966, he received a rude awakening. The problems of the informal segregation in the urban ghettoes outside the South posed entirely different challenges: when black people moved into white neighborhoods or demonstrated for the right to do so, “white flight” or violence often followed. King actually said that the hate that he experienced while trying to demonstrate for open housing in the Chicago was worse than anything in the South.
- This disappointment led to very different rhetoric by the later years of his life. The Birmingham letter laments the “airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society” in which “the vast majority” of black Americans found themselves, and by the end of his life King seemed to be closer to pinning the blame for this on the American economic system itself. In fact, he wondered if America might be better served by moving toward democratic socialism, and he was killed while in Memphis to support white and black sanitation workers in their strike. He eventually spoke of the Vietnam War with fiery condemnation.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” challenges us as Christians not to tolerate injustice. After all, it was written to Christian ministers who told King to slow down. Furthermore, his career shows us that injustice needs to be confronted but that solving these issues is often very difficult. We need to be careful that not to tell ourselves that since the legal playing field is basically leveled, that racial justice has been achieved. While we shouldn’t feel the need to fall in line with a certain set of policies without good reason, we do need to listen to the perspective of our black brothers and sisters in Christ. While we may not be able to create the “beloved community” on earth, we at least strive for it within the church and, I believe, let that beautiful vision challenge us to truly work for peace and justice even as we wait for God’s final reign.