MLK Day 2018
Author: David Montague, MTR Executive Director
MTR will honor Dr. King in a variety of ways this spring in remembrance of his life and death 50 years ago this April 4th. This post – a short review of his Letter from Birmingham Jail – is but one of those ways.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail – his most famous address after his I Have a Dream speech – was written in response to an April 12, 1963 letter from eight Birmingham, AL clergy to Dr. King in, of course, a Birmingham jail cell. In their public letter to Dr. King, the clergy offered several complaints. Namely, that Dr. King was leading the movement as an “outsider”; that the protests would “incite to hatred and violence”; and, that “causes should be pressed in the courts and not in the streets” and should appeal to the “principles of law and order and common sense.”
These complaints offered MLK the forum for some of his most famous and insightful comments of the Civil Rights Movement in this reply. I’ve copied a few below.
Response to complaint 1: As an outsider…
“…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“… and just as Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city in the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town.”
Response to complaint 2: Protests incite hatred and violence
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
“We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.”
Response to complaint 3: Complaints should be pressed in courts and appeal to law and order.
“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”
“One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.’ “
“An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because they did not have an unhampered right to vote.”
Lastly, in addition to the responding to the complaints, Dr. King takes the opportunity in his reply to address many other topics and issues, one of which he calls the Myth of Time… the tragic misconception that time will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral and can be used either destructively or constructively, he says.
And in response to this myth, Dr. King appeals to the Church saying,
“We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men (and women) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
At MTR, we could not agree more. We are a diverse collection of co-workers with God who work tirelessly and persistently against academic injustice for the freedom of children and the glory of God.
For, as Dr. King says, “If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
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