In honor of his birthday, and to launch a new series in 2018, we begin this year with a profile in candor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Recently, I rediscovered the overwhelmingly profound letter Dr. King wrote (in long hand, I might add), from the jail in Birmingham following his arrest along with other peaceful protesters.
Among the troves of brilliant things Dr. King has said to our nation, this letter delivers unparalleled clarity, explanation, truth and insight about the deeply troubling times in the South toward the end of segregation. (Click here to read the full letter: 1963 MLK Letter from Birmingham Jail.)
In the letter, Dr. King responds to a coalition of Christian and Jewish clergy who questioned the protests in Birmingham. Dr. King addresses each of their concerns directly, and respectfully offers them opportunities to reconsider their perspective.
I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.
He addresses being called an “outsider” when they question why he was even in Birmingham to protest:
I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern State. Whenever necessary and possible, we share staff, education and financial resources with our affiliates. So I am here, along with several members of my staff, because we were invited here. I am here because I have basic organizational ties here.
Just like that. No scandalous attempt to justify his presence. Just a simple, straightforward explanation to diffuse any misassumptions about his intentions.
Dr. King moves on to explain the basic steps of any nonviolent campaign, which he outlines as: a collection of facts to determine injustices, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Dr. King explains the exact conversations his organization engaged in to complete each of these steps. He offers truth and proof about the decisions and actions that led to the protests in Birmingham. He cites the “hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts” about segregation and injustice in Birmingham. He shares about negotiations that ended as “broken promises.” He describes the internal reckoning that is self-purification, during which protesters were trained in non-violent actions and asked if they were able to “accept blows without retaliating.” In summary, Dr. King states that they “did not move irresponsibly into direct action.”
In his letter, Dr. King spends considerable time clarifying the difference between just and unjust laws, and why he supported some laws and not others.
A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law… We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”
As Dr. King’s letter continues, he delivers an impassioned plea for his readers to observe, question and adjust their own moral compasses.
I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.
As I finished reading the letter, I felt Dr. King’s candor was robust and exemplary. I also found his words to be deeply relational to our nation’s current tensions around perceived injustices, the demand for moral courage from our leaders, and the intention and meaning of peaceful protest. Please give yourself the gift of re-reading his letter.