MLK’s Letter From Birmingham Jail Still Inspires Nation Decades Later
By Kevin C. Peterson
A little more than a half century ago the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to an obscure cabal of local clergy in Alabama. The letter would have a more far reaching impact across the nation and globe.
King wrote the letter while confined in a city jail in Birmingham in April, 1963, focusing on themes that shaped his triple-faced public theology: non-violence, mutual human interdependence and the power of love. The purpose of King’s missive was to convince local clergy why he had ventured into the highly volatile city widely known in the region for its hostility toward African Americans.
Birmingham, back then, was known as Bombingham in the wake of vicious attacks against blacks who, under the influence of the Rev. Fred Shuttleworth, began resisting against local apartheid laws that left their communities subdued.
Shuttlesworth, an agile preacher and able organizer, had founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a grassroots group bent toward creating the non-violent tension that had become a strategic staple among young, black protest preachers associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This brand of the protests marked the movement and stirred spiritual sentiment across the nation — enough to usher in power public policies that corrected longstanding discrimination in the areas of housing, public accommodations and voting rights. Shuttlesworth had invited King to join them in the local struggle.
The entire contents of King’s profound letter will be read in Boston April 16 on the City Hall Plaza at 4 p.m. by hundreds who want to acknowledge the brilliance of the document. It will be read on the 55th anniversary of its publication as part of King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait.
One by one a procession of readers — ranging from grade schoolers to grand parents — will embrace King’s words by speaking them. They will publicly embody his message through corporate articulation as a form of confession and commitment.
The letter — which was written and smuggled out of jail on scraps of paper — stands now as a scintillating civic document that continues to inform our political and cultural values. It is a long, ponderous letter that ploughs through our weighty concerns about the nature of personal agency, collective self-determination and restorative justice. It is a public meditation on common purpose, national self-examination and ways to negotiate peace within the context of civil society. It is a precisely calibrated statement that embodies the great sagacity of Americans as different as Thomas Jefferson is from John Dewey, as distinct as Dorothy Day is from Susan B. Anthony.
Then there is the issue of freedom and the task of summoning moral courage in pursuit of justice. King wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Embedded in this point is that human progress is achieved through firm, calculated ethical action. Creating the Beloved Community requires resistance against social evil in the ultimate interest of peace and human flourishing.
King also found in his letter opportunities to discuss civil disobedience, the act of willfully breaking unjust laws that stand in contradiction to human dignity. He wrote: “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.”
King’s letter is a paean to what constitutes our democratic society. It confirms our best ambitions around developing into a just society. Even more than 5 decades after it was written the letter retains immense existential meaning. It animates the public imagination. It engages us all with its protean power, its capability of capturing extraordinary civic intentionality, its deep communitarian resourcefulness.
To participate in the public reading in Boston on April 16, 2019, sign up at www.bostonmountaintop.org