On April 16, 1963, from his cell in a Birmingham City Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned a public letter addressed to several of Alabama's leading white religious leaders, who had openly questioned the pace and the confrontational nature of civil rights demonstrations.
In the 21-page, typed, double-spaced essay, Dr. King responds to the criticisms these eight white clergymen had made in their recent "A Call for Unity" statement
, in which they agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not the streets.
“It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham," Dr. King agreed, "but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
Dr. King argued that racial violence and oppression demanded a more urgent response — that lukewarm words of support were inadequate, that only nonviolent direct action would result in real progress toward change.
"You may well ask: 'Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?' You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."
Because the work of racial justice is far from finished, and because Rev. Dr. King's challenge to religious communities and leaders is as relevant today as it was 57 years ago, we came together on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2021 for a public reading of the Letter.
Co-hosted by The BTS Center and the Maine Council of Churches
, this event included multiple voices, contemplative music and space for reflection. View the recording below:
Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying
Song by Ken Medema
View the below video created especially for this event, with a song and images that we hope will inspire you to deeper prayer and action.
Special thanks to the following:
- Kelly Muse, piano, music & video editing
- Choir: Cori Farnham, Ophelia Hu Kinney, Martin Turnidge, Carolyn Turnidge, Allen Ewing-Merrill, Kelly Muse
Selected words from Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
"Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."