Meditation on “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

MLK Day is coming next Monday and my yearly tradition has been to read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” because it speaks so powerfully to me, a white moderate. This year I want to “get in the kitchen” to so speak and share my notes here as I read through this letter again this year.

First, why was Dr. King in a Birmingham jail?

This note in an article in The Atlantic explains:

In April 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a march of black protesters without a permit, urging an Easter boycott of white-owned stores. A statement published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen, criticized the march and other demonstrations.

This prompted King to write a lengthy response, begun in the margins of the newspaper. He smuggled it out with the help of his lawyer, and the nearly 7,000 words were transcribed. The eloquent call for “constructive, nonviolent tension” to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement. The letter was printed in part or in full by several publications, including the New York Post, Liberation magazine, The New Leader, and The Christian Century.

In the summer of 2020 when America was exploding in protest, I heard some of my white friends raise the marketable side of Dr. King as a contrast to the protests going on in the streets of American in 2020. They shared pictures of Dr. King in a nice suit, marching in the daytime. Dr. King didn’t break store windows. Dr. King didn’t throw rocks. He marched “properly”… like white people like to see (today).

White people in Birmingham didn’t like to see Dr. King at all. Suit, daytime, didn’t matter. He was marching “without a permit” so to jail he went… over and over. We, as whites, look over Dr. King’s multiple times in slammer. He wore a suit. He marched during the day. Who could fault him for that?

Context. We need context. We ignore context. So, Dr. King in our white version of him has become a hallowed saint when truth be told we wouldn’t have like his words back then and I doubt we would like his words today.

From the letter:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”

This is my point: no matter what Blacks do to show the injustices they face, we, as whites, are not going to be happy. It’s called “moving the goalposts.” We do it quite well.

From the letter:

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century b.c. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

This cuts to my hear. What am I doing. Besides reading this letter every year, what am I doing? When I find injustice, what is my action?

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

This is a common quote. It’s great to put up on social media this time of year. Here is the thing: we do it every year because it exists persistently. Again… what am I doing? Do I act because I understand this is true?

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This is the heart of our sin as conservative white evangelicals: We have reduced to “sin” to each individual. We have reduced salvation to each individual. We have no sense of community… and we are wrong for it. We are ALL in an inescapable network of mutuality. We have failed so see community.

It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

We continue to leave the Black community with no alternative time and time and when protest is raised, objections are given, a complaint is filed, we keep on asking, “Where is your proof? What is so wrong? Why can’t you just get along?”

We keep moving the goal posts of demands and limits and rules and then are surprised when people are frustrated and loud and demonstrative.

We continue to demand MORE of the Black community than we would of our white neighbors. We can’t take “them” at “their”word. No. We need a video. When we see the video. “Well, you can’t believe everything you see.” We see an uncut version. “Well, we need to get all the facts in.” The facts get in. “Well, a guilty verdict had to happen otherwise ‘they’ would riot in the streets again.”

On and on. We keep throwing up our objections and we keep making harder demands and we keep refusing to acknowledge our own blindness.

When Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers were convicted I heard, “Well, that’s what it should have been. Guilty.” What is forgotten is that this case wouldn’t have seen a trial. It wouldn’t have been prosecuted. The video existed and was ignored. It wasn’t until the video was leaked that people were aware. So… no. This wasn’t an “automatic.” It was a gross injustice for a very long time before it was a guilty verdict.

And the problem in all of this isn’t so much the white supremacists or racists, like Ahmaud Arbery’s killers or Kyle Rittmiller or Derek Vaughn.

The problem is me.

The one who rages on the inside when Ahmaud Arbery is lynched and Breonna Taylor is shot in her own home and George Floyd has the life crushed out of him by a racist cop while the cop sneers into the camera. The one who is deeply disturbed by a system that keeps making voting harder for segments of society that NEED to vote and have representation. The one who sees all this… and stays silent.

The problem is me.

I hesitate to speak. I hesitate to write. I hesitate to confront. I hesitate to demand better of fellow white Christians.

This is who Dr. King addresses in this letter. ME.

The last few years I have tepidly tried better. (Here I realize some of my closer friends and former friends would say, “THAT was tepid? These last few years have been TEPID?”)

So, I read Dr. King’s words again. I look for more opportunities to speak out. I look for more opportunities to advocate.

I look to become more ANTI racist and not settle for just saying to myself I am not a racist.

Live it.

Five Writing (and Living) Lessons from Dr. King's 'Letter from a Birmingham  Jail' - The Berkshire Edge

2 thoughts on “Meditation on “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

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