Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one of the classic documents from what many interpreters see as a significant turning point in the public consciousness toward the systemic injustice that was being brought to light by the courage of countless of its victims and their advocates.
The brutality of the response to those who sought to demonstrate peacefully in Birmingham’s summer of 1963 was captured and broadcast around the world, and segregation’s bastions were seen for what they were in ways that began to turn the tide of public opinion.
Events and images preserve our memories of those times. Police dogs, fire hoses and beaten demonstrators still come to mind when Birmingham ’63 is mentioned.
A bomb that killed three little girls in Sunday school is also part of our memory of that time and place.
We can hope that those images will never be erased for they remind us what can happen when a lifetime of structured injustice, fear and misguided theology combine to defend what people believe is God’s order of things.
Behind and embedded in those events are the commitments and the visions of courageous pioneers in the quest for justice, who bring to the struggle not only a willingness to engage its challenges, but also a deeply rooted understanding of the “why” of the effort.
What happened in Birmingham was not a street fight between rival factions and conflicting ideologies.
It was a confrontation of an oppressive, unjust status quo by people whose guidance came from a source deeply rooted in theological, philosophical and legal understanding.
King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a clear and forthright expression of that understanding.
It was composed on the margins of the daily newspaper and other scraps of paper in the city jail in response to a statement that had been issued a few days earlier by a group of Birmingham’s white clergy.
They had appealed for the ceasing of demonstrations and for using negotiations and the legal system to respond to needed corrections. It was, in their words, “an appeal for law and order and common sense.”
In retrospect, and to King at the time, it was a “we sympathize with your cause, but now is not the right time for such drastic changes” kind of statement.
King used that statement as an opportunity to set forth, in comprehensive terms, the rationale for the kind of public demonstration that he and others felt was necessary to bring sufficient attention to the problem.
It was a long and involved letter, carefully and considerately addressing each of the points of the white clergymen’s statement.
It reflected the capacity of King’s mind to hold a large volume of historical, philosophical and theological knowledge, and his political discernment to apply that knowledge to the concrete needs of the time.
It is worth reading – again, for most who are reading this – for both its timeliness and its timelessness.
Like Paul’s New Testament letters, this one was written to the specific needs of a particular time and place.
But, also like Paul, King pointed to some overriding realities that transcend specific settings and relate to our common humanity.
A central theme of this classic letter is the importance of community, and the need to dismantle any and all barriers that stand in the way of its realization.
Action to remove those barriers must be focused and specific. Yet, any effort must not forget that the goal is not winning a fight for liberation, but reconciliation toward a community that enables both oppressed and oppressor to escape the crippling bondage of oppression.
Now safely archived in the classical documents of that period of our history, this profound expression of faith and its application to the concrete realities of everyday life serves two purposes for us:
1. It is a powerful, well-grounded presentation of the case for concrete action in the face of particular circumstances.
2. It is a profound presentation of some timeless truths about humanity’s possibilities and vulnerabilities.
It leaves us, even 50 years later, with a question: Will communities of faith and their leaders devote themselves to preserving the structures of alienation that have provided security and comfort to some while perpetuating crippling effects for others, or will they (we) devote themselves to the process of reconciliation toward the kind of “beloved community” that King and so many others have envisioned?
When today’s children and their children look back 50 years from now at the scenes of moral and spiritual conflict over today’s pivotal issues, will the forms of injustice that divide us today be seen in the same way that we see Birmingham of ’63?
History can be a good teacher, if we let it.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.