Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s writing of his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" on 16 April 1963. At the time I was a mere 6-year old first grader living in a then-white section of West Philadelphia—in other words, I had no idea who Dr. King was and would not have understand what he was doing even if I had. In the ensuing decades, of course, I have learned much about the esteemed civil rights leader. Despite his manifold flaws and moral failings, I have come to regard Dr. King as one of a handful of most important American thinkers and public figures of the 20th century. And, in my view, his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written in a dank cell in the margins of a newspaper and assorted other scraps of paper off the top of his head, is the most important thing he ever wrote.
On the 3rd of April, 1963, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights began a nonviolent campaign to protest segregation and discrimination against African-Americans in Birmingham. On 10 April, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued an injunction disallowing the demonstrations and picketing in which King's groups were involved. When they made it clear they would disallow the Judge's ruling, King, Ralph Abernathy, and others were summarily arrested and thrown into jail. While there King read the newspaper of 12 April, which contained a plea written by eight white Alabama ministers entitled "A Call for Unity." The "plea" was, in fact, a thinly-disguised polemic against Dr. King, whom they deemed an "outsider" stirring up the pot by using "extreme" and "unwise" measures that "incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be." While patronizingly acknowledging "the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized," they urged "calm" and patience while such matters were handled "in the courts" "for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems."
King's letter (to read it in its entirety, see here), which was smuggled out of his cell piecemeal by his attorney, is, in effect, a powerful apologia for his strategy of nonviolent protest/civil disobedience in the form of an open letter to the white clergymen who had issued their "call" for "unity." King's impromptu argumentation, with its appeal to natural law and easy familiarity with the Bible, Socrates, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, St. Augustine, and others, is as impressively staggering as it is profound.
King saw through the hypocrisy and disingenuousness of his detractors' call for patience in these matters. After all, his people had waited more than 300 years to receive the natural rights which they had heretofore been denied. And he knew full well that the call for patience was merely a tactic to perpetuate the discrimination his opponents believed comported with the natural order. In such circumstances his quotation of Chief Justice Earl Warren, "[J]ustice too long delayed is justice denied," was right on the mark. Likewise, his acceptance of the "extremist" label thay had flung on him was rhetorically brilliant. Citing Jesus, St. Paul, Martin Luther, and others as "extremists" demonstrated that extremism, per se, is not a problem. What matters is that about which one is an extremist:
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? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
The irony that so many of King's detractors would later cheer Barry Goldwater's dictum, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," is delicious only in rhetorical terms.
Intellectually, King's most significant insight came in his defense of civil disobedience. Against those who self-righteously pointed to law, King made the correct distinction between just and unjust 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. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
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. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Citing the biblical example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego together with that of the Boston Tea Party was merely the final turn of the screw to those proud of both their Christianity and patriotic Americanism.
However, to me the most poignant element of King's letter was his regretful indictment of the white church [As an aside, the mere fact of "white" and "black" churches is Exhibit A of the indictment of an American church that apparently has never taken Paul's dictum of Galatians 3:28 seriously.] His most poignant words are these:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
This was the real tragedy. I well remember the day in which Fundamentalist church leaders would illegitimately drive a wedge between the "spiritual" and "social" dimensions of the Christian gospel, even claiming that the latter had nothing to do with the gospel [Even then the connection of "liberal" theology and "liberal" politics had been assumed. "Why?" is a question to which I have never received an adequate answer.] Even worse, when I moved to Dallas, Texas in 1979, I distinctly remember being appalled when learned that the famous W. A. Criswell, pastor of the 50,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, had in 1956 publicly opposed integration (a stance which he later reversed in 1968), and listened to him defend racially-segregated worship. I was somewhat less surprised to learn that Jerry Falwell had, in 1958, spoken out against the Warren Court's 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and had, in 1964, denounced the Civil Rights Acts as the "Civil Wrongs Act." These are men who were regarded by my Evangelical fellow travelers as stalwarts of the faith. I then did not regard them as such. And the years have not changed my opinion of them. Yes, I understand that I am a Northerner, and that official segregation was foreign to my experience. But these were men who supposedly based their worldview on the Bible, which is far from ambiguous on the matters that have a bearing on this issue. Simply put, they were without excuse. Good (or at least "conservative") theology amounts to a hill of beans when it is wed to practice that denies the very heart of a gospel based on God's fulfillment of his promises to Abraham. And to act as if our country's original sin has been paid for, that the graveyard in our collective closet is now irrelevant, and that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, African-Americans now play on a level playing field, is both unrealistic and reprehensible. None of us theologians are guiltless, of course, and we must always be willing to remove the redwood trees from our own eyes before we cast aspersion on our brothers for the specks of dust we perceive in theirs. But it still grieves me when I hear supposed followers of Jesus Christ speak and act in ways that King's interlocutors would have approved. It is for this reason that King's prophetic call in 1963 is still relevant in 2013. May we never forget.