Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a hero to many, an agitator by others, and even as he sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, his call for justice and equality for all did not stop.
It was in this jail cell that he would write one of the most famous and fundamental documents from the Civil Rights era. But it would be nearly 50 years before clergy from the denominations of the intended recipients would respond to what is now known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
According to the History Channel, on April 12, 1963, King Jr., along with several other protestors, had been arrested “after leading a Good Friday demonstration as part of the Birmingham Campaign, designed to bring national attention to the brutal, racist treatment suffered by blacks in one of the most segregated cities in America – Birmingham, Alabama.”
After four days of sitting in this cell, King read an open letter in the local newspaper from clergy (Christian pastors and a Jewish rabbi) criticizing him and his message. With time on his hands, he began to draft a response, the website indicates. He jotted down thoughts on the newspaper and scraps of paper.
“Without notes or research materials, King drafted an impassioned defense of his use of nonviolent, but direct, actions,” reports the History Channel. “Over the course of the letter’s 7,000 words, he turned the criticism back upon both the nation’s religious leaders and more moderate-minded white Americans.”
The Rev. Robert Whitaker, pastor of Victory Praise and Worship Center, said King’s letter was a plea for unity and courage.
“The local clergy criticized Dr. King as an outsider for bringing demonstrations to the streets of Birmingham,” he said. “To this King referred to his belief that all communities and states were interrelated. He went on to say, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
Christian Churches Together in the USA, an organization which unites Christian churches nationwide, wrote a formal response to King’s letter saying, “Since the ‘open letter’ that compelled Dr. King to respond came from religious leaders of Alabama in 1963, as church leaders of the 21st Century representing an array of religious traditions, we now feel compelled to respond to Dr. King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’”
The response, composed by leaders from several Christian denominations, is as long as King’s letter, roughly 20 pages, and it targets themes and ideals from his letter and responds to many of his thoughts.
“We are deeply moved by the key themes of Dr. King’s letter and lift them up anew that they may again challenge our churches and our nation,” the response, published in April 2013, reads.
“Dr. King affirmed he and his fellow demonstrators were using nonviolent, direct action in order to cause tension that would force the wider community to face the critical issues head on,” Whitaker said. “Their hope was to create tension, a nonviolent tension, that was needed to encourage growth.
King responded that without nonviolent forceful direct action, true civil rights could never be achieved.”
While CCT’s response addresses many thoughts in Dr. King’s letter, a recurring theme throughout the response is that many of these injustices still exist today. Laws have changed; civil rights have improved over the last 50 years, but racism for not just the black community, but other ethnicities as well – Native Americans, immigrants and others – is still prevalent in today’s society.
“Then, as today, those who call attention to racialized injustices and question the status quo may be accused of being unpatriotic,” the authors write. “We must insist that the current movement to revive patriotism and restore the Constitution remains grounded in American ideals that capture fundamental biblical principals. Like Dr. King, we aim not to undermine our constitutional democracy, but to fulfill its promise.”
While the document responds to King’s criticisms and themes in his letter, the authors also admit a form of segregation still exists today.
In its appendix, the Evangelical/Pentecostal “family of Christian Churches together, we confess with sadness and shame that we were at best silent and often even hostile when Dr. King led the historic movement against racial injustice…Even now our people often fail to grasp the complex realities of structural racism.”
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be?” Whitaker asked. “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? The letter from Birmingham jail continues to challenge this nation. Will we be a people of love or hate? Will we be a people of unity or strife? We ponder the question as we search for an answer.”
Even as they admit these injustices still exist, they call on all Americans to come together.
“We proclaim that, while our context today is different, the call is the same as in 1963 – for followers of Christ to stand together, to work together and to struggle together for justice,” the authors write. “Inspired by Dr. King, we resolve courageously to face the injustice that is within ourselves, our institutions and our nations.”