No Comment, Quotation — April 5, 2008, 6:56 am

King–Letter from a Birmingham Jail


I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider. . .

An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. . .

There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

We can never forget that everything 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. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws. . .

I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.

Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, Apr. 16, 1963 in: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 289.

Forty-Five Years Later

Forty-five years ago, the Birmingham News — then as today the powerful voice of an intolerant conservative establishment in Alabama’s largest city – published a letter authored by eight clergymen. The letter, framed in polite and even “Christian” tones attacked and challenged the authority and voice of King. In order to still his powerful voice, Birmingham authorities had arrested King on Good Friday and imprisoned him in the Birmingham City Jail. King’s response, which had to be smuggled out of the jail in installments by his attorneys, was published in the Christian Century, The Atlantic and other publications. As usual, it was not reproduced in the local mass media in Alabama. Dr. King always had to turn to national media to get his message out. Some things have not changed.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail has become the most frequently cited religiously themed American text of the twentieth century, quoted by political, social and religious leaders around the world. It began as a response to eight conservative ministers. It ended as an appeal to conscience heard around the world.

As we mark King’s assassination forty years ago, this text serves more than any other to remind of his powerful rhetorical style.

Last night, I listened to Columbia professor Jonathan Rieder speak on the publication of his new book from Harvard’s Belknap Press, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me, an impressive assessment of King’s abilities as a preacher. Rieder is correct in saying that we view King too quickly as a political and social leader and forget the fundamentally religious character of his message. Like no other modern figure, King’s oratory invokes the themes of righteousness and social justice common to the prophets. Rieder tells us

A King performance was a collective act in a more tangible sense: his words were not entirely his. Often the case with public speakers, this applied with special force to King, whose sermons and speeches were collage compositions. King was forever weaving bits from Amos and Isaiah, hymns and spirituals, Keats and Carlyle, black theologian Howard Thurman and white Presbyterian minister George Buttrick, Paul Tillich and Thomas Jefferson, into mosaics of sound. But these were only the literal debts. King owed his proficiency to the institutions through which he acquired his craft. If he was able to provoke assorted audiences, it was because his life lay as the junction of diverse lines of affiliation that taught him to speak in many tongues. Those networks formed a transmission belt through which the raw material of song, argument, homily, citation, inflection, philosophy, sermon, rhythm, examples, authors, theology, and ideas flowed.

Forty years after his death, King has become an icon, and like all icons, a reflection only of a dominant strain of the many facets of his personality and life. But the point that Rieder makes is certainly correct, and indeed, it emerges powerfully in the Letter. King’s oratory reflects the confluence of many streams – the traditions of the black Protestant ministries of the Southeast, of the high Protestant theology of New York and New England forged in the crucible of the abolitionist movement, the burning internal convictions of the Confessing Church of the martyrs against Nazism, and much besides. It is a mistake, however, not to recognize in this confluence something remarkable, new and powerful, and in the end a peculiarly American spirit.

Yesterday functions occurred across the country marking the memory of King and saluting his accomplishments. For some, this is done so that a man who uttered dangerous and powerful ideas can be sanitized and locked away safely in a display case. For others, King’s ideas have the force of life, and they will fuel the insatiable demand for justice—the desire expressed by Amos’s words: that justice should “roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Without that demand, justice will surely never come.

Birmingham is not the city today that King describes. In 1963, the only things that blacks and whites shared were the public utilities. Today, the entrenched elites, the successors of the “big mules” who once ran the city with a heavy and unseen hand, continue to obstruct Birmingham’s and Alabama’s passage to a new age. But a new generation is rising which is shedding the bigotries of the past. This never would have happened without Martin Luther King Jr. and those who stood with him. America will reach the goal of freedom and justice, he promised — at long last it will come, even to Birmingham.

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