On Tuesday of last week, April 16, a significant anniversary was marked in our nation’s history.  The observance was largely (and understandably) overshadowed by tragic events that occurred the day before and the day after.  On Monday, April 15, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring nearly three hundred.  This cowardly act of hatred and domestic terrorism dominated the week’s news with a massive manhunt in the city of Boston, culminating in the death of one suspect and the dramatic capture of the other on Friday.  On Wednesday, April 17, a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, inflicted unbelievable destruction and shattered the tranquility of this tight-knit community.  At present, the death toll stands at fifteen, with others still unaccounted for and over two hundred injured.

Sandwiched in between these two devastating events last week was the 50th anniversary of the penning of a letter by Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 16, 1963, from inside the Birmingham City Jail.  King and others had been arrested four days earlier for defying an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”  King and his fellow demonstrators had continued their non-violent acts of civil disobedience in protesting racial inequality, Jim Crow laws, violence against black Americans, and institutionalized segregation in the South.  While in jail, King was given a copy of a local newspaper that contained a statement written by eight white Alabama clergymen, entitled “A Call for Unity,” which criticized King and other civil rights activists for their “unwise and untimely” activities in Birmingham.  King was moved to right an open letter in response their criticisms and mischaracterizations of his efforts.

I was five and a half months old when Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote what came to be known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  My family would soon move to Warrior, Alabama, just twenty-five miles north of Birmingham.  It is still hard for me to fathom that such racial injustice existed in my lifetime and that, just a few miles down the road from where I was sleeping safely and soundly in my bed, other Americans were being beaten, mauled by attack dogs, and pummeled by water cannons.  Just three months before King’s arrest in Birmingham, George Wallace, the newly elected governor of Alabama, defiantly stated in his inaugural address on January 14, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

And where were the leaders of many white churches?  Either shamefully and fearfully silent, or, like the authors of “A Call for Unity,” inexplicably seeking to make a “Christian case” against the civil rights movement.

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is truthful, touching, convicting, poignant, wise, and masterfully crafted.  You can read it in its entirety by clicking here, but I have included some especially powerful excerpts below.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.  Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.  Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid!

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.

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.  It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.  For years now I have heard the word “Wait!”  It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.  This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”  We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

One may ask:  “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”  The answer lies in the fact that 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.  I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out.  In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist.  That would lead to anarchy.  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.

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering that outright rejection.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.  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?

Never before have I written so long a letter.  I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time.  I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith.  I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.  Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our 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.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Three years ago on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I posted “He Had A Dream” as a tribute to King’s influence and legacy.  It is noteworthy that 50 years after King wrote his letter from a Birmingham jail, an African-American is serving his second term as the President of the United States.  There are certainly those within our nation who oppose President Obama, but I sincerely pray that they choose to do so on the basis of his politics and policies and not the pigmentation of his skin.

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our 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.

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