Every year on the third Monday in January, a strange thing happens. A whole range of people—including white evangelicals like me—take to Facebook, Twitter, and yes, even to blogs like this, to commemorate the legacy and words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
For many of us, his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is seen as one of the iconic moments in American history, an inspiring, goosebumps-inducing work of oratory genius. Incidentally, those of us who grew up on Christian music (you know, the kind that’s “safe for the whole family”) can even quote the speech’s dénouement from heart, thanks to the sample featured in dc Talk’s hit song “Free at Last” from the 1992 album of the same title.
Yet at the time, King was not considered “safe” at all, nor were his words considered happy and inspirational. Following the landmark 1963 speech, an FBI memo called him the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”
How do we reconcile this “most dangerous” man of recent history with the “safe for the whole family” figure we behold in tributes today? Not easily. To sanitize his words would be to dismiss what he truly stood for, sat for, marched for, pleaded for, died for. We’d do well, rather, to think of him as a man of courage and conviction, an imperfect leader from whom we’d do well to learn. And as far as I’m concerned, the third Monday of January is as good a time as any to commit yet again to do just that: to learn from his example, borne as it was out of hardship, and leading, as it eventually did, to death.
Edward Gilbreath is a journalist who is perhaps best known as the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity. In his new book, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, Gilbreath writes that in order to truly understand King and the civil rights movement in context, we’d do well to consider the Birmingham campaign, which came to a head in April and May of 1963, just months before the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech.
As non-violent protests mounted in Birmingham, King was arrested for the thirteenth time on April 12, Good Friday. The very same day a group of eight “moderate” white clergymen in Alabama issued a statement on the “racial problems” in the state. They began by expressing their shared view that in the preceding months progress had in fact been made, citing “some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts” and an opening among “responsible citizens” to work towards a “new constructive and realistic approach” to the racial divide. But they took issue with the nature and the timing of the recent protests, which, in their view, threatened to undermine hard fought progress. What’s more, they were critical of the involvement of those like King who had descended upon Birmingham from elsewhere, intent on causing trouble. They wrote:
[We] are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
The statement from the “moderate” white clergy, urging continued patience, prompted King to pen “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on scraps of paper handed to him by a janitor while behind bars. Simply put, King and his allies felt they had waited long enough, and that stalling tactics were actually a thinly veiled attempt by those in power to ensure that justice was never done. As Chief Justice Earl Warren had put it five years earlier in 1958, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
After beginning the letter by addressing the clergy as “men of genuine good will” with “criticisms… sincerely set forth” King went on to explain why he was in Birmingham. He had been invited to come by local leaders, he wrote, but that ultimately, he was there simply because injustice was there, and he had the responsibility to act. Like the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostle Paul alike, he had no choice but to answer the call. The letter continued:
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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. 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. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, King expanded upon the message of his famous letter. Until the Birmingham campaign, he wrote, “the Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. He was well trained in service and, whatever the provocation, he neither pushed back or spoke back.”
King may have used the statement from the eight white clergymen as the impetus for his impassioned letter in reply, but as Gilbreath points out, he was certain that others would be listening in as well. His message was intended to pierce the conscience of other Christians “of genuine good will”—people, perhaps, like you and me—those who today are inclined to commemorate this holiday by affirming his legacy. But if we were to truly grapple with the contents of his letter, we wouldn’t come away from it feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. Gilbreath continues:
What we were supposed to hear are the reasons why justice delayed is justice denied; why an unjust law is arguably not a law at all; why King believed the church is Christ’s body, but a body weakened by social neglect and bad theology. But most of all, King wanted Christians to understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ demands holistic engagement with the real world in front of them today.
The Birmingham campaign ended a long time ago, and great strides have been made in racial equality—if not reconciliation—over the past five decades. We may point to the presidency of Barack Obama, and the prevalence of African Americans in places of prominence in sports, media, business, and entertainment. But ask any person of color and you’re likely to hear stories that demonstrate clearly and unmistakably that there is still work to be done. There are bridges to be crossed. There are walls to be torn down. There are wounds to be acknowledged, and if possible, healed. There are amends to be made.
So where do we go from here? How do we keep MLK Day from becoming just another sentimental holiday that’s “safe for the whole family” but devoid of relevance related to the injustices of our day? I can’t say I have the answer.
Yet the call to seek justice goes out to each of us and all of us everywhere. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, like King and his contemporaries—black and white alike—we are called to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
May the God of justice and mercy grant us wisdom and courage, and may he guide us all in the paths of peace, for his name’s sake. Amen.