Faith Leaders and Scholars on "Letter from Birmingham Jail" 60 Years LaterBreaking News
tags: civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
It’s been more than half a century since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on scraps of paper, but faith leaders say his response to white clergy critics endures as a “road map” for those working on justice and equal rights.
Recent events and exhibitions tied to its anniversary have revealed the ongoing interest in and relevance of King’s letter, in which the civil rights leader proclaimed: “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.”
Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice held a virtual event on Wednesday (April 26) to mark 60 years since King penned the letter on April 16, 1963, after being jailed for his organization of a nonviolent demonstration on Good Friday that year in the Alabama city. The letter was released publicly the next month and was included in his 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait.”
The Rev. Jim Wallis, the center’s director, noted how King wrote that the greatest “stumbling block” for freedom-seeking Black Americans was — rather than a Ku Klux Klan member — 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.”
Wallis pointed to the current debate in some school districts over what books children can and can’t read as an example of why the letter continues to be relevant.
“We know that it is impossible to build a truly multiracial democracy if we do not wrestle honestly and directly with its legacy and current manifestations of white supremacy,’’ he said. “At the moment when some are trying to erase our history, especially our racial history, remembering and learning from the past is now more important than ever.”
In an interview, Randal Maurice Jelks, author of the 2022 book “Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America,” said the letter deeply resonated with a churchgoing public of the 1960s but remains relevant in teaching people of a range of faith perspectives today.
What the letter, which was more than 6,000 words long, “continues to point out is that people do have to take a side in the struggle for justice, whatever those justice struggles are, and you can’t be, as King would say in that letter, lukewarm about that.”