A Living Letter

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One of the most significant calls to social transformation in American history sprang from a mood of deep frustration. 

It was also written in a jail cell. 

Martin Luther King, Jr., a young Baptist pastor from Atlanta, had come to Birmingham, Alabama in April 1963 to help coordinate non-violent marches and sit-ins to protest racism in the city known as the Johannesburg of the South (mirroring the strict, brutal segregation of South Africa).  An Alabama judge ruled that such public demonstrations were against the law.  King and dozens of others chose to protest anyways.  They were summarily arrested.

A few days later, while sitting in jail, King was given a copy of A Call for Unity, an open letter penned by eight white local pastors. 

They took King to task.  He was an outsider.  How dare he come into Birmingham and create trouble?  He had openly disobeyed the law.  How could a so-called man of God promote civil disobedience, when the Bible commands us to obey the ruling authorities?  He was demanding immediate change.  Why wasn’t he willing to let gradual change be put into effect by the courts? 

King was vexed.  Even though he had come in the name of Jesus to do the work of Jesus in a manner that he believed reflected the peaceful methods of Jesus, the very men who claimed to represent Jesus were telling him, “Not here, not now, not this way.” 

On April 16, King took a pencil and began writing a response.  He had no writing paper.  He wrote on the margins of a newspaper, on toilet paper, and on scraps of paper passed to him by friends. 

The cumulative result was Letter from Birmingham Jail, long regarded as one of the signature documents of the American Civil Rights Movement. 

Was he an outsider?  Yes.  But “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Doing the right thing respects no boundaries. 

Was he disobeying the law?  Yes.  But as Augustine and Aquinas – two of the towering giants of Christian theology – had made clear centuries earlier, it is not wrong to stand against a human law that blatantly contradicts God’s law.  King and his associates were courageously willing to accept the consequences of disobeying unjust legislation – which is why he had spent the better part of a week sitting in the city jail – but they would not stop speaking against it.

Didn’t he think justice for African Americans would come one day?  Yes.  But he wasn’t willing to wait any longer.  One hundred years had passed since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, yet Southern blacks were still second-class citizens when it came to freedom, education, and basic human rights.  “Wait” had come to mean “Never.”  “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” 

Today there is widespread admiration for MLK’s soaring rhetoric and for his steady leadership of a movement that led with forgiveness and love instead of violence and revenge.  He is the only African American, the only clergyperson, and indeed the only individual honored with a national holiday. 

But in the heat of the moment – in the middle of 1963 – he had few friends and supporters.  He was mistrusted by whites, dismissed by radical blacks, and rejected by pastors who felt called not to rock the boat.  He took flak even from some of those who might have been his allies. 

Roy Wilkins of the NAACP became a rival who strongly intimated that King was a failure.  Pointing out that nothing of practical value had emerged from Birmingham, he said, “In fact, Martin, if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me.”

“Well,” King replied, “I guess the only thing I’ve desegregated so far is a few human hearts.”

That, in the end, has always been the foundation for real change. 

King declared, “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear.  Only love can do that.  Hate paralyzes life; love releases it.  Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.  Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.”

In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention – which was formed before the Civil War in sympathy to slaveowners – formally repented of its long-term support of racial segregation. 

One of its pastors commented, “Finally we have a response to MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963.  Too bad it’s 32 years too late.”

King was convinced that public declarations, enlightened legislation, and Supreme Court rulings – as important as they might be – can never do the whole job of eradicating segregation.  Racism is a condition of the heart, and it will have to die in the hearts of people who are transformed by the love and grace of God. 

That echoes Paul’s assertion in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.  The old has gone, the new is here!”

Such a new world – a world where his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” – has not yet come.

But by God’s transforming grace, today it is 24 hours closer to reality.