Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. issued his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” responding to local clergy who felt King and others were moving too quickly, too disruptively in advancing civil rights. To mark the occasion, IVP has published Ed Gilbreath’s ebook short Remembering Birmingham, which puts King’s letter in historical context and offers reflections on its significance then and now.
remains respectful in his letter, he never concedes the justness of his cause or his methods. “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham,” King wrote. “But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” In King’s mind, “the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
Gilbreath points out that “in the letter’s longest and perhaps most condemning section, King registers his deep frustration with ‘the white moderate’ who supposedly agreed with the goal of integration and equal rights but objected to the nonviolent confrontational approach of his movement.”
King asked them if it wasn’t the case that Jesus was an “extremist for love,” and the prophet Amos “an extremist for justice,” and the apostle Paul “an extremist for the Christian gospel, and Bunyan, Lincoln and Jefferson all extremists in their own causes?” After 340 years of limited freedom for African-Americans, was perhaps it not right, asked King, for the time of waiting to end? He answered by quoting William Gladstone: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Ultimately, says Gilbreath, for all his many roles King was a Baptist minister in his core, and this was evidenced in the substance of the letter. After all, what gave King the inspiration and the strength to take pen to paper during those dark days in the Birmingham jail? Gilbreath answers:
First and foremost a man of prayer, King knew that his solitary confinement was only a physical state of being. “God’s companionship does not stop at the door of a jail cell,” he later wrote about his Birmingham experience. “God had been my cellmate.” This probably best explains why “Letter from Birmingham Jail” became such a powerful document. King did not write it alone.