Dr. Martin Luther King worked for racial equity with a theology of nonviolence. Nevertheless, the forces that be eventually found a way to put him in jail. with “Whites Only” signs everywhere and history of bombings of black homes and churches, Birmingham was known for its intense segregation. A local circuit court judge had issued an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”
On Good Friday, April 12, 1963, King was arrested. He was subjected to unusually harsh conditions in jail.
While in jail, MLK received a letter from eight white Alabama clergyman entitled, “A Call for Unity.” The eight clergy were:
- C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D., Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
- Joseph Aloysius Durick, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham
- Milton L. Grafman, Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama
- Paul Hardin, Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church
- Nolan Bailey Harmon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church
- George M. Murray, D.D., LL.D., Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
- Edward V. Ramage, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States
- Earl Stallings, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama
These pastors agreed that injustices existed, but they wanted King to be more patient. They were uncomfortable with the tensions, created by public protest. He should calm down and wait for gradual change. Justice would come in time. He should let the remedy come through the courts. It’s always easier to counsel patience when you’re not in the group experiencing oppression.
King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is now famous. He began writing his response to them on the newspaper that published the clergymans’ letter.
He pointed out that negotiations had been going on for years. There had been a lot of waiting already. “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” “Justice delayed is justice denied.” “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’” He lamented that some assume progress toward equal rights was inevitable and so assertive activism was unnecessary. Progress requires courageous leadership. All too often leaders value harmony and status quo over justice. If I advocate for change, people might get mad. It could affect my status, even my wallet. If I stand boldly with the marginalized, the forces of the dominant culture may turn on me too. We pastors suffer from a failure of nerve, and conscience.
“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.”
Then King directed his critique more bluntly on the white church and its leaders.
“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.
“Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are…
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust…”
An irrelevant social club jumps out at me. He uttered these words 60 years ago this month. They seem prophetic.
More MLK thoughts:
“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Those words have always haunted me. This is why we must stand with our friends when they ask us.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
“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 the law…”
“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
— Martin Luther King