Martin Luther King's "Letters from Birmingham Jail"

The Introduction to John Piper's Bloodlines is titled :

Martin Luther King Jr.
What Was It Like for Those Who Weren't There?

Piper writes,

Martin Luther King called for freedoms and rights and justice that were long overdue. And he did it with an appeal to historic Christian vision, with amazing rhetorical skill, without condoning violence, and with unprecedented and lasting success. That's why there is a holiday in his honor. One of his writings in particular provides a window on the mid-twentieth-century world of black Americans — "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

The place is Birmingham, Alabama. The time is April 11, 1963. I was seventeen years old in Greenville, South Carolina. At the Gaston Motel, Room 30, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and Fred Shuttlesworth decided to lead a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration the next day, Good Friday, against the racial injustices of the city.

As in most Southern cities in those days (including the one I was growing up in 350 miles away) bus seating was segregated; schools, parks, lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains — they were almost all segregated. Some called Birmingham the most segregated city in the country. Its bombings and torchings of black churches and homes had given it the name "Bombingham" — and "the Johannesburg of the South."

There was one catch. The sheriff, Bull Connor, had served Martin Luther King with a state-court injunction that prohibited him and other movement leaders from conducting demonstrations. With a wife and four children back home in Atlanta, King decided to violate the injunction, pursue a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration, and willingly go to jail. On Good Friday, King led his fifty volunteers downtown, up to the police line, came face-to-face with Connor, and knelt down with Ralph Abernathy in prayer. He and all the demonstrators were thrown into paddy wagons and put in jail.

On Tuesday, April 16, King was shown a copy of the Birmingham News, which contained a letter from eight Christian and Jewish clergymen of Alabama (all white), criticizing King for his demonstration. In response, King wrote what has come to be called "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and which one biographer described as "the most eloquent and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written." (Stephen Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, 222)

. . . he delivered a powerful call to the church, which rings as true today as it did in 1963:

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . . But the judgment of God is upon the church [today] as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century.

That is Martin Luther King's prophetic voice ringing out of the Birmingham jail in 1963.

Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Melissa, and their four children, and is the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary .