'Letter from Birmingham Jail' at 50: MLK's religious fervor remembered
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Fifty years later, these eight simple, yet powerful words are what many remember from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s’ Letter from Birmingham Jail.
They have become a sound bite, a snippet, of King’s clarion call to clergy in and around Birmingham to bring an end to the unethical practices of segregation and economical injustice.
However, while many remember the letter simply by those eight words, those familiar with the letter want to clarity there is much more to the writing missing on society today.
Addressing a crisis of Christian faith
King’s letter reflected the religious challenges of his time, addressing the crisis of Christian faith for southern Christians at the time, said Billy Michael Honor, pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.
“As I understand it, the initial purpose of King’s letter from the Birmingham jail was to respond to the criticism of certain white and black clergy who claimed that King’s protests were unhelpful to the peace and unity of the segregated south,” Honor told theGrio by email.
In the letter, dated the 16th of April 1963, King responds to critiques from those he identifies as “white, moderate” clergymen. They have questioned not only his “present activities” in Birmingham, but also his presence in their city. For them, he is an outsider, bringing unnecessary ruckus to their city, and has no business in their affairs.
MLK’s responsibility as a religious leader
But for King, it is his responsibility as a religious leader to be there.
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he writes.
Dr. Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford University, said King’s writing to white clergy defends the idea of non-violent demonstration on religious grounds. As director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, Carson is the consummate historian and authoritarian on King.
What Carson wants to highlight, he told theGrio by phone, is that King’s entire argument is from memory alone.
“It’s from what he knows. He is in jail and trying to defend himself without access to consultation and a library,” Carson said. “He called upon every rhetorical device he could use to make that case. I get the impression that being in jail focused his mind.”
This, for Honor, is perhaps the most significant impact the letter had for King and cements his legacy.
“His writing of such a phenomenal letter without the use of notes or reference materials cemented King’s legacy as a public theologian and theological ethicist,” he said. “In particular, the charges against King’s academic credentials due to allegations of cheating and plagiarism were also quelled by the impressive intellectual quality of King’s missive.”
King was at a crossroads
Today, we look back and remember King as a great leader who changed the course of history, Carson points out. However, at the time King’s leadership was being questioned.
“He was under severe pressure,” Carson told theGrio. “Over the course of the six years he does not do very much. Other groups have started taking the initiative to bring about change, Malcolm X is gaining in publicity, and grassroots leaders in the community are saying, ‘We admire you, but what have you done recently. What have you done since Montgomery?’”
So King’s entire reputation of whether he can properly lead a campaign is at stake.
“If King had failed in Birmingham, there would not have been the March on Washington; there would not have been the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. There would not have been any of that other stuff we know him for if he had not succeeded in Birmingham,” said Carson.
His decision to go to jail represents his deeply religious roots, Carson adds.
“Some were saying, ‘If you go to jail, all is lost.’ And others were saying, ‘If you don’t go to jail, all is lost.’ In the end, he makes a decision based on faith.”
These are facts, realities that are lost upon the larger society today. Part of this can be attributed, said Honor, to a lack of knowledge overall about the actual content and details of Dr. King’s life.
We must remember MLK the theologian
“For example, much is said about Dr. King as a civil rights leader but very little is said about King as a theologian, public theologian and social ethicist; which makes his letter all the more important,” Honor said adding, “It is also important to understanding the ideological and intellectual mind of Dr. King; this point is very important as the King legacy continues to be co-opted by forces that would like to sanitize, conflate and misappropriate it.”
Carson compares this lack of knowledge to the realities of most Christians across the world. He calls it intellectual laziness.
“It is a problem we have with a lot of people who profess to believe in something who really do not have an idea of what they believe,” he said. “Not many Christians, if you asked them to summarize the Sermon on the Mount and what it means, could fulfill the task. I’m not even sure many people of a certain generation have even read King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
So how do we rectify this problem? Honor has some thoughts.
“In order to ensure that the legacy of the King letter is understood, individuals with knowledge of its history, context and content must continue to share the story,” he said. “In addition, religious practitioners, like myself, must continue the legacy in our work and ministry.”