Birmingham letter inspires many today

In the letter, the civil rights leader said injustice
anywhere is a threat to
justice everywhere.


LOS ANGELES — In many churches today, religious leaders will extol the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in anticipation of Monday’s federal holiday in his honor.

Some will quote from his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

Others will invoke a letter he penned while in an Alabama jail four months earlier. Though not as well known as his speech, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — a response to eight white clergymen’s public misgivings about outsiders’ protesting in Alabama — remains an inspiration for clergy and students of the civil-rights movement.

“This letter is not a letter just to white churches — it’s a letter to the church,” said the Rev. Ralph Watkins, an African Methodist Episcopal minister who is assistant dean of Fuller Theological Seminary’s African American Church Studies Department in Pasadena.

King wrote the letter in jail after he was arrested for leading a protest march in downtown Birmingham on Good Friday. Addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” the letter was released to the public two days after Easter.

In it, King, at the time president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, explained why protesters came to Birmingham: “... I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”

King went on to say that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

He chided his clergy critics for “deploring” the demonstrations but not injustice.

King, a Baptist preacher and a theologian who earned a doctorate from Boston University, was 34 at the time. The letter is full of references to the Scripture and great spiritual leaders through the ages.

King said that when his clergy critics called him an “extremist,” he was offended at first but later gained a “measure of satisfaction” from the label. The question, King said, is not “whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”

King reserved his harshest evaluation to the white church and its leadership. When he was catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Ala., he thought the ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would become “our strongest allies,” he wrote.

King added that many churches had made “strange, un-biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

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