Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail was a long response to an “open letter” from a few white ministers who urged King to call off the civil rights action he had organized in a non-violent protest to unjust laws against civil rights. The letter of the ministers was very short, brief and clear.
King begins his response by citing the statement of the ministers. They call the present activities “unwise and untimely.” King states he wants to answer their statement “in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” King explains that he is no outsider who is aggressively asserting civil rights in Alabama. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights is a local organization that invited Dr. King. He is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which operates in all the Southern states, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The Alabama Movement requested King’s intervention on its behalf.
King indicates that he is in Birmingham because injustice is there. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he affirms. “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
A Timely Response
King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is well known as a classic statement and defense of civil rights. However no one ever responded to King’s reply. Christian Churches Together in the United States (CCT) in 2011 met in Birmingham, Alabama to consider the relationship between racism and poverty in the United States. As part of its work, CCT reread the open letter of the Birmingham ministers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. They wrote a summary of their reflections on the continuing importance of Dr. King’s statement fifty years later. Though the Civil Rights Laws of the 1960’s protected the voting rights and legal status of African-Americans in the United States, there remains very much to do, to remove the systemic racism which contributes so much to the poverty of people of color, and their struggle to achieve the equal opportunity which they deserve.
The CCT Response
Using the context of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, CCT lists the following goals to be achieved in the matter at hand:
- address the causes of injustice, not just the symptoms
- recognize that the struggle is not only economic and political, but personal
- seek a higher standard for public policy and political participation
- be extremists for love, justice, and peace in Christ
- act now
- engage in nonviolent direct action as a strategy for social transformation
- challenge injustice by bringing it into the light
- cherish the church, while holding it to a higher standard
- hold fast to the true foundation of the American dream.
CCT quotes Dr. King’s Letter under each of the above headings. It is appropriate to cite the last paragraph:
“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.”
Reflection and Confession, Thanks and Resolve
After establishing the context from Dr. King’s letter, CCT devotes the remainder of its statement to four points. First it reflects on the similarities and differences of working
for civil rights today and in the 1960’s. Much progress has been made thanks to the civil rights legislation enacted at that time. The “outsiders” are now “insiders” and so they have an obligation to continue to work from the inside to continue to make progress. The causes and complexities are complex and multiple. “But we must also acknowledge our temptation to discuss complexities, rather than to demand and work toward change.”
Secondly CCT affirms that as leaders of over one hundred million Americans, as Catholics, Evangelicals/Pentecostals, Orthodox, Historic Protestants and members of Historic Black denominations, as people of many races and cultures, we call ourselves, our institutions and our members to repentance. We make this confession before God and offer it to all who have endured racism and injustice both within the church and in society.
Thirdly, CCT expresses its thankfulness for “noble souls from the ranks of organized religion (who) have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity, stepping forward from every denomination and ethnicity to lay down their life for the good of their neighbors.” It also expresses its gratitude to those churches and denominations that have made justice a keystone of their life, ministry, and mission.
The final section is devoted to resolve. It is a bold statement and very specific in its goals, namely to eradicate remaining racism.
We proclaim that, while our context today is different, the call is the same as in 1963—for followers of Christ to stand together, to work together and to struggle together for justice. Inspired by Dr. King, we resolve courageously to face the injustice that is within ourselves, our institutions and our nation. The church must lead rather than follow in the march toward justice. We also claim the strong biblical tradition that rejects selfish individualism. Biblical faith teaches that we are made for community; that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Biblical faith demands that Christians place the common good above individual privilege…this biblical summons to justice for all is also rooted deeply in the best of our American ideals, however imperfectly our nation has lived them.
CCT points out several specific efforts and programs are needed: education, criminal justice, employment, housing, child welfare, and other practical arenas; specific recommendations are made in each of these areas.
This is the last of the studies on moral issues studied by the Christian Churches Together in the United States that I will present at this time. It is undoubtedly the most extensive moral discernment in an ecumenical context undertaken at a national level. Its central focus is poverty in the United States, its causes and effects. From mass incarceration to racism and immigration to poverty the wide spectrum of Christian Churches Together studied some of the most vexing problems facing our nation and culture. CCT gives us great hope that God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ and the saving power of the Holy Spirit will unite us as one body, nourished by the Eucharist and will be with us till the end of time. His final victory is our lasting hope and never ending prayer.