Martin Luther King, Birmingham, and the Great Letter

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Founder & Teacher,

On April 3, 1963 Martin Luther King issued the “Birmingham Manifesto” (not the letter). He was 34 years old, married and with four children, one of them five days old. The manifesto called for all lunch counters, restrooms, and drinking fountains in downtown department stores to be desegregated. Some called the city the most segregated city in the country. Its bombings and torchings of black churches and homes had given it the name, “Bombingham” – the “Johannesburg of the South.” That day sixty-five blacks staged sit-ins in five stores, and Police Commissioner Bull Conner dragged twenty of them away to jail.

King arrived with unparalleled eloquence in the service of non-violence. In nightly meetings in the black churches he rallied the troops:

We did not hesitate to call our movements an army. But it was a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity. No uniform but its determination, no arsenal, except its faith, no currency but its conscience. It was an army that would move but not maul. It was an army that would sing but not slay. It was an army to storm bastions of hatred, to lay siege to the fortress of segregation, to surround symbols of discrimination. (Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, [New York: A Mentor Book, 1982], p. 210)

On April 13, Good Friday, 1963 King and his team refused to follow a court injunction that forbade peaceful marching. Such injunctions had been used to tie up peaceful direct action for years. Not this time. King met the barricades and the shouting Bull Conner, knelt beside his friend Ralph Abernathy, and was thrown into the paddy wagon and taken to the Birmingham City Jail. This was the 13th time King was arrested.

He was put in solitary confinement without mattress, pillow, or blanket. His situation improved when Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked why he was in solitary confinement. On Tuesday, April 16 he was brought a published letter signed by eight white clergymen of Alabama criticizing King and the peaceful movement of demonstrations. King felt inspired to write a response.

What came from his pen is today called Letter from Birmingham Jail. It has been called “the most eloquent and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written.” (Let the Trumpet Sound, p. 222). Its message is relevant today. I recommend that everyone at Bethlehem read it. You can find it at dozens of places on the internet (for example, see this PDF).

We need to hear the power and insight with which King spoke to that generation of the sixties—enraging thousands and inspiring thousands. The white clergy had all said: Be more patient. Wait. Don’t demonstrate. He wrote:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she’s told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “Nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears an outer resentments; when you are for ever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. (M. L. King, Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Finally he delivered a powerful call to the church which rings as true today as it did 38 years ago:

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. (Letter, p. 17)

We will be discussing this letter as part of our racial harmony weekend on Saturday, January 14. Continental breakfast is offered starting at 9:30. See you there.

Pastor John