Today, America pauses to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s impact on America cannot be overstated. He led a movement that awakened America to the injustice and cruelty of the overt racism that dominated America, particularly in the South. He did so by calling America back to its roots and ideals, both secular and biblical. This post will center on Dr. King’s prophetic and majestic Letter from a Birmingham Jail. If you have the time, I would strongly encourage you to read the entire letter here.
The Birmingham Protest
In early 1963, Dr. King was at a low point. Recent setbacks in Georgia had stalled the civil rights movement; Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference needed something dramatic to spur momentum. They chose Birmingham, Alabama as the place to make a stand. Dr. King called it “the most thoroughly segregated
city” in America. Blacks were forbidden to eat and play at “white only” locations, the KKK was active and violent, and outright segregationists dominated city government.
Dr. King countered hate with aggressive love and non-violence. He and his followers confronted the power structures with boycotts of segregated businesses, marched on power centers, and created peaceful but direct encounters with the police. Seeking to shut the movement down, “Bull” Connor, the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety and noted segregationist, got an injunction against future marches. Despite this, Dr. King and his followers pressed on. At the next protest, Dr. King was jailed.
The Letter from a Birmingham Jail
While in jail, Dr. King penned his famous Letter, which is styled as a response to eight white clergyman who criticized the protests (see their letter here). Dr. King’s answer was a brilliant and prophetic defense of the civil rights movement from a moral, spiritual, practical, philosophical, and political perspective. I’ll comment on some of the most notable points:
The Need for Pressure
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue . . . My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
Dr. King clearly understood the sad truth that oppressors seeking to protect their position will not concede without a struggle. The brilliance of Dr. King’s movement was that they created that tension through non-violent means. In so doing, they gained moral authority in the eyes of the United States and the world.
Waiting for Justice
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 have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. . . Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters. . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
This passage sears the soul. For someone like me, who has never felt the sting of segregation, not to mention a fear of lynch mobs, it is nearly impossible to understand what Dr. King and his followers were up against. Especially given the three centuries since slavery began, and the fact that the Civil had ended a century before, a request to “wait” must have been an outrage. Action was not only justified, it was demanded. Dr. King and his followers courageously met the call of their time.
Just vs. Unjust Laws (A Defense of Natural Law)
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. . .
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. . . We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”
The question of “natural law” is a thorny one. A society can only exist if most laws are followed by the citizenry most of the time. However, as the Founders of America recognized, people have certain “inalienable rights,” and that no nation has the right to violate those rights, even if a majority of people pass a law that does so. If a nation passes an unjust or immoral law, Dr. King correctly argues that a just person must disobey that law. While it is difficult to correctly determine when a law is sufficiently unjust to justify disobedience, the Jim Crow segregation laws were clearly unjust and contrary to both the “moral law” and “God’s law.” Dr. King and his followers were right to disobey those laws and advocate for their repeal.
When Moderation Fails
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. . . who is more devoted to “order” than to justice . . . 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 had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice . . .
And now this [nonviolent] approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” . . . And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
This argument cuts to the very core of this blog, in which I advocate for moderation, incrementalism, and respect for tradition. And, while I believe that these ideas are right most of the time, Dr. King correctly argues that some situations call for extreme action. But, without constraints, this idea could lead to an unknown number of harmful radical changes. Happily, Dr. King provides a guide — he reaches back to the secular and spiritual heritage of America as a way to hem in those who would seek to expand his idea too far. He cites to Jefferson, Lincoln, the prophet Amos and even the Lord Jesus Christ as exemplars. These righteous and heroic examples are a double edged
sword — they bring moral authority, but also hold your cause to the highest standard. To gain the right to take extreme action, your cause must be just enough to satisfy the scrutiny of Jefferson, Lincoln, Amos, and Jesus Christ. This is a high standard, indeed. Dr. King’s movement met that standard, but few others will — a protection against radicalism.
How History Will Judge The Civil Rights Movement
I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
This passage resonates strongly with me, because Dr. King is expressly reaching back to America’s founding ideals against the reality of segregation. He brilliantly juxtaposes the “majestic” words of “freedom” and “independence” with the “injustice,” “humiliation” and “cruelties” of slavery. He knows that America’s founding ideals are the place to look even when the country falls short of honoring them. In fact, it is the very fact of those ideals that creates the springboard for reformation. Dr. King’s genius was to create circumstances where the contrast between our ideals and the reality became intensely visible to Americans. When that dissonance was made clear, reform could (and did) follow.
In closing, Dr. King prophetically wrote:
One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” . . .
One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
As he foretold, we do honor and celebrate the heroes of the civil rights movement. We remember and tell the stories of James Meredith, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, and so many others. We in fact acknowledge that they were standing up for America’s “most sacred values” and embodied the American Dream. And, most of all, we recall the brilliance and moral courage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While we aren’t perfect yet, America is a better place because of his life and actions.