In early April, 1963, just about 54 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., announced plans for a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama to gain civil rights for African American citizens. On April 12, he was arrested for violating an injunction issued by the state circuit court against holding that demonstration. He was placed in solitary confinement in a cell in the Birmingham City Jail. While incarcerated, he was startled, even shocked, to see an open letter published in that day’s newspaper signed by eight white local religious leaders criticizing him for bringing outsiders to Birmingham to cause turmoil and disruption of the peace.
After spending some time in prayer and contemplation, to be sure that he did not write anything too inflammatory, considering the emotions he was feeling, Rev. King wrote a response from the cell to these religious leaders, justifying his decision and his actions. He spelled out in graphic terms his reasons for acting, and he provided a framework for understanding why such actions were not only morally justified, but were grounded in both Christian thought and the democratic principles on which the country he loved was founded. It is a remarkable document.
It is remarkable both for its content and for the circumstances under which it was written. The newspaper in which the letter from the clergymen was published was smuggled in by an ally. As King had no other paper on which to write, he began his response to their letter in the margins of the newspaper itself. He continued it on “scraps of paper” that were supplied by a friendly trusty. He concluded it on a writing pad that his attorney was finally allowed to give to him. Though Rev. King had no access to books or research materials, in the letter he quotes theologians from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther to Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. He makes reference to the philosophy of Socrates and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He makes reference to the Biblical prophet Amos. He reminds his readers of the refusal of the Israelites Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar “on the ground that a higher law was at stake.”
He reminds us all, as we all are now privileged to read the letter in dozens of publications, that “everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’.” He refers to the opposition of the White Citizen’s Council and the Ku Klux Klan. He makes reference to the black nationalist movements, particularly Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslim group. He talks about the Zeitgeist and the international brotherhood of all black people.
He cites Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. He gives thanks to his white brothers in the South who “grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it,” people such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden, and Sarah Patton Boyle. He quotes T. S. Eliot. And, of course, Rev. King talks of the teachings of Jesus and the Kingdom of God as he envisions it from his reading of the Bible.
In short, he makes connections across the landscape from religion to philosophy to politics to sociology and literature and back and forth again, providing evidence that he sees life as an affair that is not narrowly circumscribed by one discipline or outlook, but existing in a cultural context where religion, politics, philosophy, and other disciplines are interrelated and form a kind of tapestry of interchange and interaction.
I don’t know how many of us here have spent any time in jail. I expect that most of us see jail time as something to be avoided. It causes all kinds of complications. It can complicate your desire to go to college or to join a branch of the military; it can cause problems with your employer or if you seek a job that needs a criminal record background check. And it’s regarded as a badge of shame in most cases, to say nothing about the discomfort and tediousness of the experience. And then there’s the chance you will be subject to brutal treatment while behind bars.
So, for someone to choose, because of the call of conscience, to put himself or herself in a position which is likely to lead to arrest, is a daring and courageous thing. I wonder if there is anything that we would ever choose to do that would lead to the likelihood of our getting arrested.
“Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is a testament to the courage of one man to risk his freedom for the sake of a belief. The belief, in this case, is that African Americans (called “Negroes” at this time), were being unfairly discriminated against, unlawfully beaten, shamed, and terrorized. And it was a belief based on the reality of personal experience.
To read this letter 54 years after it was written is both sobering and inspiring. It must seem amazing to those too young to remember those times, just how institutionalized racism was in all of its dimensions. The eight religious leaders who wrote the open letter to Dr. King were in favor of desegregation. They just thought that the movement in that direction needed to be established through the courts, not on the street.
Rev. King’s response was that justice had been systematically denied; good faith negotiations had failed over and over again. He quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
The period just after World War I was called “The Age of Anxiety” by the poet Auden. The thesis is that those things that seemed permanent and beyond questioning began to seem not quite real, especially to those who had directly witnessed carnage on a scale never before experienced in world history.
Thirty-eight million people died in that war. A rational worldview became hard to hold to after witnessing death and destruction on this massive a scale. Patriotism seemed a vague concept, not quite real, and religion seemed to offer answers that were irrelevant to those who had experienced warfare in the industrial age. The capitalist system saw a rival as communism changed Russia and surrounding countries into the USSR—and then the ideals of communism were found to be unsupported by practice.
And then there was another world war. This time the instruments of destruction were even more deadly. This time the number of deaths caused directly by the war exceeded 60 million. When deaths from related causes such as famine and disease are accounted for, the number reaches 80 million. Numbers too large for us to comprehend.
And then came the Cold War. After atomic bombs were dropped in Japan, a new age of anxiety began. Some here will remember the days of air raid drills and children hiding under their school desks or decamping to school basements. Anxiety is a state where you are just waiting for the next bad thing to happen. In some measure, we all experience this, though, in time, it seems just to be part of what reality is: dreadful things can happen any time.
I raise this history for a couple of reasons. One, Black Americans arrived in this country as enslaved human beings. The term “slave,” in fact, stripped them of the recognition of being a “human being.” The life of a slave was a life where freedom did not exist, and any kind of dehumanizing behavior was acceptable.
We’ve all read the books and seen the movies. Bad things could happen at any time. But, even more than that, bad things were happening all the time. There was never a time when a slave was free and at peace—until the Emancipation Proclamation, at least. And, as we are reminded so graphically in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., fifty years ago full freedom for African Americans in many parts of the country was still a dream.
The questions that Rev. King raised in 1963 remain questions for us today. When does the word “injustice” cease being just an abstract term? When does it assume the mantle of reality? How much injustice must be borne because that is just the way life is? How much injustice is borne because it’s happening to others, so it’s not quite my problem? How much injustice is borne with resistance, knowing that “this can’t be right,” but feeling no power to successfully throw it off? How much injustice is, finally, too much? And then, what implements are to be used to throw it off?
By 1963, one hundred years had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued. Clayborne Carson, the editor of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., describes the conditions in Birmingham like this:
If you had visited Birmingham before the third of April in (1963), you might have come to a startling conclusion. You might have concluded that here was a city which had been trapped for decades in a Rip Van Winkle slumber; a city whose fathers had apparently never heard of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, the Bill of Rights, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, or the 1954 decision of the United States Supreme Court outlawing segregation in the public schools….
Place yourself in the position of a Negro baby born and brought up to physical maturity in Birmingham…. Picture your life in the following manner:
You would be born in a Jim Crow hospital to parents who probably lived in a ghetto. You would attend a Jim Crow school. You would spend your childhood mostly playing in the streets because the “colored” parks were abysmally inadequate. When a federal court order banned park segregation, you would find that Birmingham closed down its parks and gave up its baseball team rather than integrate them.…
If you were hungry or thirsty, you would have to forget about it until you got back to the Negro section of town, for in your city it was a violation of the law to serve food to Negroes at the same counter with whites.
If your family attended church, you would go to a Negro church. If you attended your own Negro church and wanted to play safe, you might select a church that didn’t have a pastor with a reputation for speaking out on civil rights. If you wanted to visit a church attended by white people, you would not be welcome. For although your white fellow citizens would insist that they were Christians, they practiced segregation as rigidly in the house of God as they did in the theater.
If you wanted to contribute to and be part of the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, you would not have been able to join a local branch. In the state of Alabama, segregationist authorities had been successful in enjoining the NAACP from performing its civil rights work by declaring it a “foreign corporation” and rendering its activities illegal.
If you wanted a job in this city—one of the greatest iron- and steel-producing centers in the nation—you had better settle on doing menial work as a porter or laborer…. If you were fortunate enough to get a job, you could expect that promotions to a better status or more pay would come, not to you, but to a white employee regardless of your comparative talents….
You would have found a general atmosphere of violence and brutality in Birmingham. Local racists intimidated, mobbed, and even killed Negroes with impunity.… No Negro home was protected from bombings and burnings. From the year 1957 through January 1963, while Birmingham was still claiming that its Negroes were “satisfied,” seventeen unsolved burnings of Negro churches and homes of civil rights leaders occurred.…
You would be living in the largest city in a police state, presided over by governor—George Wallace—whose inauguration vow had been a pledge of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” You would be living, in fact, in the most segregated city in America.
Despite all this, local African American citizens, members of the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights under the leadership of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, made progress in the movement for ensuring equal rights across the racial divide.
His efforts were so successful, and he was seen as so threatening to the status quo, that his home was bombed and completely demolished on Christmas Day in 1956. Later that winter, his church was dynamited by racists. The following year, he and his wife were mobbed, beaten, and stabbed. They were also jailed eight times, four times during the Freedom Rides.
This was the context for Rev. King’s entrance into Birmingham.
Are we surprised that white clergy members were afraid of more violence? Are we surprised that they advocated for letting the courts work it out? I think not. The greater surprise, I think, was theirs—that King and other leaders were willing to risk so much to see justice done, to gain rights that they knew they deserved, to refuse to allow hate to triumph.
In his letter to the clergy of Birmingham, Rev. King first had to justify his status. He was no outsider, he said. He was president of the Southern Leadership Conference that had offices in Birmingham and was responding to a request from the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights.
“I am here because I have organizational ties here,” he said. “But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. 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.… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
There are not many Americans whose contributions to the progress of the nation have been considered so significant as to merit the award of a holiday in their name. Lincoln and Washington are the only two, and now, of course, the celebration of their birthdays have been conflated to the more general “Presidents’ Day.”
What could be so significant about the contributions of a man who died before his 40th birthday? The answer is contained in the eloquence of his words, the moral values to which he pledged his allegiance, and the actions that he took to advance the values and give weight to the words.
It is hard at this distance to recognize the courage that it took to commit to non-violent civil disobedience in order to see justice done. “I have consistently preached,” he said, “that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.”
But, what was he up against? Not just those who had no qualms about using violent means to attain immoral, bigoted ends—not just his enemies. He was also up against the normal human impulse to maintain the status quo: “Don’t rock the boat or we might all drown.” He was up against the desire for stability as enshrined in the letter from the clergymen and as embedded, as he said, in the “white moderate” who believes in the equality of the races, but is content for time to pass for that equality to be achieved.
But, “time,” King says, “is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” And “More and more,” he came to feel, “people of ill will have used time much more effectively than people of good will.” He says:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our Constitutional and God-given rights.… We still creep at a horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dart of segregation to say, “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when 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 tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness towards white people… when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why it is difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.
Fast forward 54 years. In the year just past in the city of Chicago, there were 762 homicides, most the result of the violence of street gangs, most members of which are black. In yesterday’s Daily News, the headline of a story on the violence reads “Report says Chicago police violated civil rights for years.”
The AP story begins, “The Justice Department on Friday exposed years of civil rights violations by Chicago police, blasting the nation’s third largest department for using excessive force that included shooting at people who did not pose a threat and using stun guns on others only because they refused to follow commands.”
The names of Black men and women whom we know to have been killed by police officers or while under police custody has become a litany by now: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Sean Bell, Kendra James, Amadou Diallo, Freddy Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice… Those are just some of the names, each a real person with a life attached, each with families and loved ones, each a life cut short by the misuse of power and with the realization of justice just a dream.
You may wonder how this affects you. I hope that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. that you’ve heard today help to answer that question. I hope, too, that the history of racism in this culture, some of which you’ve heard today, helps explain why the Black Lives Matter movement is necessary. And you may ask what you can do.
You can ask yourself if the status quo is acceptable to you. And you can remember the small things that make possible the large things. Remember the ally of Dr. King who smuggled in the newspaper? If not for that action, there would be no letter from the Birmingham Jail: King would not have known enough about the open letter from the white clergymen to have been able to write so eloquently.
Remember the trusty who slipped King scraps of paper so he could continue writing? Would history have been changed if he were not so friendly to the cause and so courageous?
Remember the lawyer who smuggled out the writing so that it could be assembled by King’s staff in his office. Remember those staff members.
Each was a necessary piece of the whole.
And remember who you are and who we are when the call comes out from those organizing actions in line with the Black Lives Matter movement in Bowling Green, whether that call should come tomorrow or next year. And show up in small ways. We will be marching together as the UU Church of Bowling Green in tomorrow’s symbolic march from the Justice Center to the State Street Baptist Church. It is important for the Black community to know that they have white allies, and it is important for us to take the small steps that we can that help create the culture that will respond when larger things are called for.
Because it’s true that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And together, we can make a difference.
- Latimes.com: “From Ferguson to Baton Rouge: Deaths of black men and women at the hands of police.” July 12, 2016.
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson. Warner Books, Inc. NY, NY. 1998.
- Wikipedia: “Letter from the Birmingham Jail;” “World War I Casualties;” “World War II Casualties.”
Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on January 15, 2017