The Confrontation of a Letter from Birmingham

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr.  I have to confess, apart from reading and studying the “I have a Dream” speech and watching Selma, I did not really know a lot about King.  Recently, I purchased The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Audible⁠1.   To explain, this “autobiography” is was incomplete, in that King was in the middle of putting it together when he was assassinated.  It has been edited together by a King scholar, Clayborne Carson.

Part of the presentation included a reading of the A Letter from a Birmingham Jail by King himself.  The letter an open letter in response to a public letter that was published by moderate white clergy about the protests that King was leading.  As someone who would probably have written as a moderate white clergyman, I found this letter confronting, uncomfortable and challenging.  I want to share three ways I was challenged by it.

Before I do, it’s important to see the background and context of both letters.  In the 1960s segregation in the South was a key political focal point.  Birmingham had openly racist opponents to King, including “Bull” Connor who, though had recently lost the mayor’s election still held the position of “Commissioner of Public Safety”.  Birmingham was, in King’s view, “… probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”.

King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned to protest in Birmingham after successful campaigns starting in Montgomery.  The protests were clearly to be non-violent and sought to attack the economy of segregation by boycotting particularly businesses and to fill the jails of Birmingham.  Since the protests were aimed at making the most economic impact they were scheduled around the Easter period.

King had been arrested on April 12, Good Friday, and was placed in solitary confinement.  However, a newspaper with an open letter from white clergy questioning the protests was slipped to him.  Since he had no writing paper, the response was written in the margins of the newspaper and smuggled out to the world.

I recommend taking some time to read the whole letter⁠2.  Or you can hear most of it read here⁠3.  But here are some excerpts that challenged me and why they did:

What is extremism?

“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. 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.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” 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? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

Now, like then, the idea of extremism is looked down on by moderates.  But King is right.  It is not the idea of extremism that we need to be concerned with, but rather what are we extremely for?  Paul raises the same issue in Galatians 4:18-19.  It is one thing to be zealous, it is another to ask what are you being zealous for?

The reason this is an issue is because of King’s critique of white, moderate Christianity:

Moderate Christianity

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice….Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

And later…

“There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

It raises the question of where is the church in the public sphere?  Are we too afraid of burning the social bridges that we are also too afraid to cross?  Are we too busy seeking to engage and understand society and not busy enough seeking to change it?  The charge of whether the church thermometer or a themostat of scoeity, is thought-provoking in the least.

These are tough questions to ask.  Especially when we see what the price might be, and what the price being paid by the author at the time he was writing was⁠4.

Just and Unjust Laws

This leads us to the thoughts on just and unjust laws.

“Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is a difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama, all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured? 

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest. 

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for 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. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience. 

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.”

There should be an appropriate nervousness when talking about unjust laws, as King points out this could lead to anarchy.  But his comment “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” I think shows the difference between anarchy and civil disobedience to an unjust law.

King does not really make a clear argument for what defines an unjust law.  In his defense, I don’t think he needed to for the issue of segregation.  

I do want to say that, as far as I can work out, some white Christian leaders did respond to King’s call to stand with him.  There were white people standing with protesters during the “I Have a Dream speech” that King notes during the speech.  But the letter does raise the issue of when does the church stand against the state, in an act of civil disobedience.

The letter has for me questioned whether I am being too safe, too busy keeping the status quo or whether I am standing for God and his purposes in the world.  Hence it has been a confronting experience to study it.

Footnotes:

1 The Audible version includes audio clips from MLK speeches which alone makes it worth the purchase.

2 https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4PyAadIH8U

4 This was King’s 13th arrest and far from his last.

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