Reflections on "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
Updated: Apr 28, 2019
Fifty-six years ago this month, the great civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote a telling letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. He was arrested on Good Friday 1963 for civil disobedience—for participating in a peaceful march with the goal of ending racism.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Dr. King.
When I was younger, I learned about this letter and its historical context mostly in an academic sense. Like many other great tragedies of the last century, I know about them mostly from textbooks and documentaries, but also from hearing from those who lived through the events.
First-hand accounts are a gift. I’ve had the great honor of meeting Holocaust survivors, a dear elderly couple, both of whom as children were hidden in Naliboki Forest in Eastern Europe under the leadership of the Bielski brothers. I’ve also heard the compelling testimony of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the South Vietnamese survivor of a napalm bombing. You’ll recognize her from the iconic photo.
On Sunday, I met Elijah Jamison, a man who has certainly lived through some epic moments in world history. He is African American and a U.S. military veteran, having served in the Vietnam war.
He leads an addiction recovery ministry at the congregation where I met him, Evangel Ministry. He reached out to me after serving lunch following a super hype and seriously solid gospel service on Resurrection Sunday at this Detroit house of worship.
I went to Evangel with my friend Lloyd, a middle-aged man I met in 2015 on the sidewalk in front of the abortion clinic where I do outreach. He was moved to tears at last Sunday’s service and made a commitment to Messiah. He heard the message of the Good News from Pastor Lorenzo Sewell, himself a living testimony of the power of redemption.
Being at Evangel was a joyful, life-affirming experience. We were welcomed with loving arms from the minute we approached the doors. I took Lloyd, a Detroit resident, to Evangel hoping to connect him with a nearby, healthy Christian community where he may engage and transform.
Lloyd, like Dr. King and Pastor Sewell’s father, has first-hand experience with incarceration. Lloyd will tell you he deserved to be imprisoned for law-breaking. Dr. King conceded that his behavior was civilly disobedient. However, he knew that his punishment and the law that precipitated it, were unjust.
As brutality and de-facto segregation plagued the South, Dr. King—along with other action-oriented leaders—arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, with a message: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
He continued, “…there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
“To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
Dr. King’s words resonate with me as I stand with others who love ALL humans—born and preborn— and act to end injustice for them.
“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. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Dr. King railed against segregation in the 50s and 60s. I believe that today, in the face of legalized abortion and the illogical cries of “my body, my choice”, he would stand aghast and act adamantly against adding one more preborn human to the millions who’ve been destroyed.
Carefully reading the whole of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has been revealing, especially in light of our on-going struggle with human injustice. In spite of his flawed character and theology, Dr. King invokes God’s word/Jesus’ example with power and clarity:
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
I challenge you: be an extremist for love! Pray for an end to abortion, that it will be unthinkable. Act on behalf of legislation that protects the voiceless. Volunteer at a pregnancy care center that aids mothers in crisis pregnancy situations. Stand on a sidewalk in front of a local abortion center and reach out to women in hopes of helping them change their minds/hearts/actions. Get involved with Safe Families for Children. Foster a child. Adopt a child.
I am reminded of my calling and its influence, as Dr. King reflects: “Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.”
God-intoxicated. I love it! No earthly drug could possibly compare to being full of Him and His Spirit. No hangover. No bad trips.
Dr. King eloquently ended his letter by exposing the cruel treatment by the Birmingham police force: “…if you had seen…if you were to observe…if you were to watch them…” he admonishes. This is what changed Bernard Nathanson and Abby Johnson. Seeing. Have you seen what happens to a fetus during an abortion? It's not hard to find on the web.
Sharing his final sentiment, I borrow Dr. King’s farewell and insert my additions parenthetically:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of (human abortion) racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our (hate) fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
The very year after Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, followed swiftly by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which, sadly, Dr. King was unable to witness as he was murdered four months before its signing.
One hundred years before Dr. King’s courageous acts and poignant pen graced Birmingham, Alabama, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the federal legal status of African Americans from slave to free.
May ALL humans receive such legal protection! May the abolition of legalized abortion and the recognition of personhood happen soon and in our day! May we all be extremists for love and justice in the cause of protecting all humans, preborn and born.