Saturday, April 16, 2011

Moderates, status quo, fellow Christians chastised by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Birmingham jail - 48 years ago today

Sculpture captioned, "I Ain't Afraid of Your Jail"
Commemorating the children's protest of King's arrest in Birmingham

Photo by dcwriterdawn. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" 48 years ago today, April 16, 1963, after having been arrested 4 days earlier - Good Friday - for marching without a permit, even though the permit was withheld.

King's letter from behind bars was written in response to white ministers who wrote a letter critical of King's breaking of the law by marching for civil rights. This letter is one of the two best answers I have ever heard to "What part of illegal don't you understand?"

Here is part of King's answer to that question:
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. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
It is also in this letter that King wrote a sentence crucial to indivisibility in America, one that needs repeating in the panic-driven immigration debate:
Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
King was a Christian pastor, and the audience for this letter was a group of Christian pastors who sided with the "law" without question:
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.
At the same time, King acknowledged the possibility that he might be crossing a line, but not the one his fellow clergy was worried about:
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
The full text of King's letter is here:

An actor's interpretive reading of the entire letter, along with images from the civil-rights-era events described in it, starts at the 4:12 mark of this video:

1 comment:

  1. Enjoy teaching this every year to my English students. Timeless.


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