The 50th Anniversary of the Letter from Birmingham Jail
By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
In an extraordinary, perhaps definitive occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail on April 15, 2013, ordained leaders of Evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions signed a new response to that classic Letter.
Christian Churches Together (CCT) organized the event in Birmingham not only to commemorate the half-century mark of Dr. King’s historic letter but also to correct the failure of these churches ever since to collaborate in its Gospel message. The test will be whether or not and the extent to which Christian churches live out their new commitment.
Released through a formal signing ceremony on April 15, these leaders committed their churches to live, pray, and enact the Letter from Birmingham Jail by: 1) realizing our essential interdependence; 2) addressing the root causes of injustice; 3) engaging the struggle personally; 4) seeking a higher standard for public policy and political participation; 5) becoming extremists for Christ’s love, justice, and peace; 6) acting now; 7) engaging nonviolent direct action as a strategy for social transformation; 8) challenging injustice by bringing it to light; 9) cherishing the church while holding it to a higher standard; and 10) holding fast to the true foundation of the American dream.
Congressman John L. Lewis raised a critical question for these Christian leaders today: “will we become troublemakers for the Beloved Community?” Lewis’s question is not merely rhetorical for it goes to a central theme of Letter from Birmingham Jail and of the Gospel.
In his speech to the CCT conference, Lewis reminded participants that Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and Civil Rights activists were called “troublemakers” at the height of the movement. Lewis also remembered how Jesus was castigated as a troublemaker for healing the sick, demonstrating compassion with the excluded, and questioning the political and religious powers of his day.
If churches tended to denigrate Dr. King when he was alive, since his death it seems like we have cleansed the prophetic edge off his message and witness. Dorothy Cotton, who was the lead organizer of Citizenship Education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and colleague of Dr. King, criticized the way society and churches have sanitized the real King. Today, churches tend to ignore if not dilute the heart of King’s message that most threatens the most comfortable and privileged members of society.
Recall that Dr King wrote his Letter in response to the statement signed by eight Alabama clergy, including three Episcopal leaders, two Methodist bishops, one Baptist pastor, one Rabbi, and one Roman Catholic bishop. In their statement, these eight clergymen appealed to “law and order,” calling the nonviolent protests against Jim Crow laws “extreme measures,” and demanded that Dr King end mass demonstrations. They asserted that outside agitators came to Birmingham to create racial and civil disorder.
In his response, King wrote: “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but can’t agree with you in your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’” King concluded, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
King’s point concerns a critical insight both of active nonviolence and of anti-racism: when negotiation or dialogue fails, as he explained in his Letter, “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”
The problem of Christian white moderation today may not be the lust for “law and order” over justice but the way that white dominated churches are bargaining with multiculturalism.
As Evangelical leaders Ron Sider and Jim Wallis emphasized, for all the strides that have been made, white churches remain segregated and fail to take responsibility for over-incarceration of African Americans and Latino brothers and sisters and for public schools that fail communities of color.
By bargaining, I mean the ways that institutions may encourage multiculturalism by promoting inclusiveness, including new policies for recruitment, hiring, and celebration of diversity, and carrying out intentional efforts to include people of color on staffs or committees. These are good policies that ought to be pursued.
While intentional inclusiveness may be encouraged, bargaining includes avoiding the more difficult issues of power at stake. The current bargain tends to ignore how societal and institutional structures, culture, decision-making, and policies maintain white privilege and power. Rarely, if ever, do churches (and affiliated institutions) attempt to address the relationship between internalized racial superiority and internalized racial inferiority.
Certainly, Christian churches and the Gospel call us to nurture open discussion and diversity of perspective. However, a common gap in multicultural programming in many institutions is that they do not contend with the relationships between privilege and oppression at work in our churches and institutions.
As Christian churches, we tend not to confront our own complicity in white privilege and power, and the ways we live by a culture of whiteness, rather than authentic inclusiveness and mutuality.
Dr. King was clear in his Letter: “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
Or, as Reverend Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) explained to the CCT conference, the “sin of racism runs deep in our church” because “the seductive power of white privilege” continues to make it “too easy to accept the benefits” of racial advantage.
Just as King in his Letter and Mahatma Gandhi before him demonstrated that active nonviolence requires preparatory training and “purification” of violence within ourselves and our own communities, so anti-racism requires collaborative preparation and training to contend with the roots of internalized racial superiority and inferiority within ourselves personally, institutionally, and throughout society.
There is hope and practical example in the active anti-racism approach in some of the churches that participated in the CCT conference. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Methodist Church, and Mennonites all actively promote anti-racism training and development.
The Sisters of Providence, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, the Springfield, Illinois Dominican Sisters, and Pax Christi USA’s Anti-Racism Team are some of the Roman Catholic organizations that incorporate active anti-racism. While some Roman Catholic dioceses may sponsor offices for racial justice, the Office for Racial Justice of the Archdiocese of Chicago may be the only diocese that has incorporated anti-racist training.
Will we and our churches enact a new commitment to become extremists for the Gospel and the Beloved Community?
If people of faith and churches find new ways of troubling the waters of racial injustice in our society today, we will need to draw upon the deep wisdom of Letter from Birmingham Jail. More importantly, to paraphrase King’s Letter, our witness will have to be the salt that “preserves the true meaning of the Gospel in these troubled times.”