“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 Judeo 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.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
It is at the time of our greatest despair that our true character is revealed. Each of us has been tested, some more than once, but very few of us have been tested to the degree Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was on April 16, 1963. Sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King would pen one of the most important works to emerge from the civil rights movement, the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It is in that letter that true unity against injustice was forged.
Dr. King is and always has been one of my heroes. I grew up in the era in which Dr. King’s leadership helped define not only the struggles of our nation, but our hopes as well. Sitting in our small living room on April 4, 1968, is still with me to this day. The assassination of Dr. King was the first time in my life that I had lost someone who important to me. As the television flickered, and the “Special Bulletin” caption seized control of that day’s broadcast, little did I know my life would change forever. On that day, I asked “why would anyone want to kill such a great person?” That question would drive me to learn all that I could about who Dr. King was.
All “great wars” have famous battlefields. For the civil rights movement, names such as Selma, Montgomery, Greensboro, Memphis and Birmingham were just as important as Normandy, Iwo Jima or Khe Sanh. As with all war against tyranny and injustice, the difference between defeat and victory is always what you are fighting for, not what you are fighting against. On April 16, 1963, the fight for the civil rights of an oppressed people was in jeopardy.
Many historians will tell you infighting and conflict within the civil rights movement in 1963 created a strain within the movement, threatening the unity and potentially slowing the progress of the cause. I would argue Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was his greatest moment. It so clearly defined the moral purpose of the civil rights movement, and laid before all those who were actors in this story the absolute clarity of what was at stake. The civil rights movement was about finally fulfilling the moral certainty ordained in the Declaration of Independence, yet had been unjustly denied to a large segment of our citizens.
Much like the Apostle Paul, Dr. King would call upon his faith and his commitment in Christ to truly understand what was expected of him at one of his darkest periods. Dr. King arrived in Birmingham to support the non-violent protests occurring throughout the city. As with all great battles, there are the righteous and oppressors. As the Apostle Paul would find his fate in the hands of Roman Emperor Nero, Dr. King would come face-to-face with Sheriff Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor. During one of the protests attended by Dr. King, he was roughed up and arrested by Connor’s henchmen and thrown into the Birmingham jail. However, being thrown into jail by a racist would not be the only catalyst for scripting the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Just when Dr. King thought he was at his lowest, with a movement divided, segregated from his flock, a group of clergymen would publish a letter known as the “A Call for Unity.” In this letter, this group of clergymen would condemn Dr. King and his supporters as misguided, and attempted to discredit Dr. King’s non-violent resistance as futile. The clergymen also questioned Dr. King’s motivates for coming to Birmingham. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail was Dr. King’s reply to his critics and his oppressors.
Denied paper and access to communicate to the outside world, Dr. King penned the letter within the margins of a newspaper that had been smuggled to him. It was in this very same newspaper in which the “A Call for Unity” first appeared. With the help of a small group of allies who worked at the jail, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail was delivered to the media. Much like the Gettysburg Address, which started as a draft on back of an envelope, King would deliver words more powerful in character within the margins of a newspaper than the original words printed on the same page.
As with Apostle Paul during his imprisonment, Dr. King would find the right balance of grace, hope and strength. Dr. King would draw on his faith and proclaim with absolute certainty, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. “Apostle Paul’s time in prison would shape the writings featured in Corinthians and Philippians, and provide the unity to the young Christian movement. In turn, Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail would unite the civil rights movement, confront some churches for their lack of support of the civil rights movement, and serve as the modern gospel in the fight against injustice, and for the basic human right of equality.
To read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail visit www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.