Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and like we do every year in honor of Dr. King’s memory, I’m posting an excerpt from his Letter From Birmingham Jail.
This year’s selection is a set of passages from the closing paragraphs of the letter. Here, Dr. King is giving thanks for those who have nobly and courageously taken a stand for justice and nondiscrimination — those who have broken loose from the “paralyzing chains of conformity.” He then explains that he has no despair about the future, for the goal of the movement he is committed to is freedom… the American goal. Our destiny, he writes, is tied up with America’s destiny.
Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom.
Yes, they have gone to jail with us.
Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers.
But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times.
They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.
I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood.
We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.
The Letter from Birmingham Jail, also known by its alternate titles (“Letter from Birmingham City Jail” and “The Negro Is Your Brother”) was written April 16th, 1963, while Dr. King was incarcerated in Alabama’s third largest city.
King and other civil rights leaders had been arrested on April 12th for disregarding an unconstitutional prohibition issued by an Alabama circuit judge on “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”
The letter was a response to an open letter authored by eight white clergyman titled “A Call for Unity,” which criticized King and his methods.
“The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response to the newspaper itself,” the document’s Wikipedia entry explains. “King writes in Why We Can’t Wait: ‘Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.’ Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, arranged $160,000 to bail out King and the other jailed protestors.”
We encourage you today to take some time to read the whole letter.
Happy MLK Day!