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Martin Luther King: A Letter from Jail

"...actively seek to understand other's perspectives, fight for the voiceless, and alongside the mistreated. Complacency has no place in the Christian walk." Michelle Erickson

I have spent the last week listening and learning. I am asking God to search my heart and bring to light where ugly sin corrupts me. He showed me that I have actually judged all types of people and sadly have summed them up based on my perception of their story. As humans, we tend to want to rank ourselves in a hierarchy even within our race and culture. In Scripture, we see the Pharisees and the disciples wondering who is the best while alienating the sick and orphaned to the margins of society. Jesus is about bringing those on the outside in, lowering ourselves and lifting up others. It is our sin infiltrating when we refuse to see an individual as a beautiful, unique creation of God with inherent value and worth.

I wrote this paper in December, analyzing the argument Martin Luther King makes in his famous letter from the Alabama jail. I chose this document because I wanted to learn how some Christians misinterpreted the Bible to support slavery and then later, Jim Crow laws. Through this apolitical paper, I longed to understand and learn. There is a link to Dr. King’s original document as well as the initial Alabama clergymen’s request. It is a bit longer and far more formal- but writing it months ago and then rereading it today continues to convict me.

I Love you my sisters and brothers.

Martin Luther King: A Letter from Jail

Michelle Erickson

CH 506: American Christianity

December 5, 2019

Martin Luther King’s thoughtful and beautifully written response to southern Christian leaders written from a Birmingham jail cell in 1963 stands in sharp contrast to the 100-character tweets Americans blast out to defend their particular call to action today. Indeed, King constructs a respectful argument while boldly confronting Christians who chose to ignore the injustice of segregation in the south. In it, we find grace-filled wisdom and strategic reasoning permeating Luther’s pages; He calls moderate white Christians to love and fight beside their black brothers and sisters and in doing so, paints a picture of Christian life in the mid 20th century. This paper intends to discuss the historical background, summarize, and analyze King's argument in his famous letter.

Historical Background

After the Second World War, the 1950s brought substantial church growth. Each denomination flourished in attenders as the leaders built large church buildings to accommodate their increased numbers.[1] Yet, although many Americans worshipped on Sunday, as Dr. Waldrop discussed in his notes and lecture, African American soldiers returned home from the war to face oppression themselves.[2] The Jim Crow laws in the south continued to degrade and oppress African Americans while the Church ignored the injustice. As Dr. Waldrop argues, the evangelical movement focused more on planting churches as opposed to fighting for the social justice issues, thus ignoring the plight of their black sisters and brothers.[3] Some Christians passively participated in the evil by perpetuating supremacy in their daily treatment of African Americans where others went as far as to join the Ku, Klux, Klan. Different protestant denominations participated in Klan activity by using "worship and revivalist language to disseminate hatred and fear."[4]

With many Christians compliant in the sin, political advances helped initiate the civil rights movement. First, in 1949, the military was desegregated, and in 1952, the schools followed. In 1955, Rosa Parks' bus protest instigated other Americans to stand or rather "sit" in protest to fight for their God-given rights. And, finally, naïve Americans witnessed the injustices on their television, which helped to rally the country to change.[5] The 1960s brought a time of "moral revolution" when leaders forced racial and sexual injustice into the light.[6] Many of the mainline churches attempted to change with the times. Nonetheless, many church leaders and politicians continued to ignore the ugly situation. In fact, Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, at his 1963 inaugural address clearly stated the state’s view on segregation, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever."[7] As some political leaders vowed to maintain Jim Crow laws, a young pastor from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, worked to eliminate a nation’s sin.

Dr. King was one of the key figures who significantly contributed to the historical times. As an eloquent pastor, well- studied, equipped with seminary degrees and the power of God, the young King took a position at a local church in Montgomery, Alabama.[8] There at 26 years old, he led the bus boycott, which peacefully desegregated public transportation and brought him to national attention.[9] 

Letter Summary

Some seven years later and only four months after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington DC, the pastor found himself arrested and in jail in Birmingham, Alabama. The same state where the Democrat governor promised segregation just months earlier. Dr. King, arrested for participating in a civil rights march on Good Friday in 1963, spent eight days in a jail cell. While in confinement, he wrote a response to a letter that “eight white Alabama religious leaders had drafted urging Birmingham blacks to withdraw support from King and the civil rights activists.”[10] To best summarize King’s letter, it is helpful to look closer at the Birmingham clergy’s statement.

Although Sennett correctly described the clergymen’s letter, the specific language asks that "honest convictions of racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts" and that in the meantime, the citizens should obey the laws.[11]They also inferred that King was an “outsider” and agreed with “certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open discussion.”[12] They insisted that King’s involvement had not led to resolution and commend the police and media for their part at maintaining peace. The leaders seemed to admit that rights “are consistently denied” however argued again that it should be handled through the courts.[13] In his response letter, King thoughtfully responded to the religious leaders’ concerns; He developed an argument against their public statement while defending his unlawful behavior and challenging the moderate Christian leaders who chose complacency over action.

Letter Analysis

The Outsider

King used the letter to guide his argument taking care to refute each of the leader’s claims. King first defended the statement that called him an "outsider" and brought in question his purpose in Birmingham. After King shared his credentials as the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he revealed that an affiliate invited him to Birmingham. But, regardless, his argument relied on the call to fight injustice wherever God led him. He compared himself to Biblical prophets and Paul leaving to follow God's call. Then, explained that injustice affects everyone; essentially, it is everyone's business. The disease in Birmingham infected the entire country while the black community suffered; white compliant Americans died in their sin. Historically, as discussed, many turned "a blind eye" to the oppression in the south. Dr. King reminded the reader far beyond Birmingham, that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."[14] Here at the beginning of the letter, he started to fight against the compliancy plaguing the church. He argued that indeed, racism should concern everyone, and no American is an outsider in the boundaries of the United States.

The Wait is Over

The clergymen instructed African Americans simply to wait for the courts to change the laws. Luther drew upon history and illustrated the African American's experience to support why waiting was no longer an option. Referring to the past, he wrote, "we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights" without change. Dr. King argued that "privileged groups seldom give up their privileges," and it "must be demanded by the oppressed."[15] For King, then, historically, the word "wait" meant "never." Later in his letter, he readdressed the issue of time when a white man suggested that eventually, African Americans will get their rights. The Texan man believed that it took time for Jesus' teachings to become a reality. Again, King refuted this logic by saying unless people join God on his mission, time simply leads to stagnation. [16]

Next, Dr. King used powerful imagery to convey the daily pain experienced by black Americans. He painted a picture of the heartbreak in individual families as they waited for the change, which failed to occur. He illustrated through examples a growing hatred toward white people as society forced parents into degrading situations in front of their children. By strategically communicating through individual stories, King managed to explain why waiting was not an option, "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair."[17] Dr. King used both historical experience and the reality of African American's life to communicate why waiting was not a solution.

Just v. Unjust Laws

The clergymen wrote about their concern with the unlawfulness of the protests occurring in Birmingham. They believed that all laws should be followed, and again segregation reform should occur within the court system. Dr. King formulated a distinct argument defending the difference between just verses unjust laws. He writes, "A just law is a human-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."[18] For King, then, just laws followed God’s agenda of righteousness and goodness, adhering to God's freedom, and commands. He agreed with St Augustine quoting him, "an unjust law is no law at all."[19] A significant theological argument compared segregation to the separation with God. God sent His son to bridge the separation of sin. So, he poses, "Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?"[20] Here, Luther forced the clergymen to see the sin in segregation as innately opposite to God's desire for humanity and, thus, unlawful.

Next, Dr. King reflected once more on historically lawful activities. He argued that Adolf Hitler participated in terrifying legal activities while the freedom fighters broke laws. Biblical characters in Daniel refused King Nebuchadnezzar, and the early Christians faced lions instead following unjust roman laws.[21] Then, Dr. King reminded the clergymen that those involved with the civil rights movement and breaking the unjust laws were indeed willing to suffer the consequences for their actions. Like those before them, those moved to action would no longer comply with the unjust laws. But, peacefully protest regardless if a law resulted in their punishment. In the end, King illustrated the unlawfulness of the Jim Crow laws by comparing them with historical and biblical truths.

The Moderate Christian

A significant theme through Dr. King's letter surrounded the complacency of the church. For me, this letter served to shake the white Christian moderate from viewing segregation and racism from their privileged viewpoint. Each refuted point called the Christian to action. Indeed, King wrote that it was this lukewarm Christian that caused him more anguish than even the Klan members. "The white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice," lived in their comfortable perspective of order and waiting for the courts to change the laws.[22] For King, then, the antidote to complacency was tension. In other words, the tension which existed bought the evilness to the surface.[23] The stress shook the status quo and forced King's white brothers and sisters into action.

For me, Martin Luther King skillfully defended the clergymen’s criticisms. One aspect that amazed me was his ability to quote church fathers and other authors from memory, in a jail cell with no google. The structure and wording displayed his vast intelligence yet were so readable. As mentioned above, the whole letter served to help white churchgoers understand the injustice lived by their black brothers and sisters and to challenge them to join in the fight. He passionately argued from the oppressed perspective attempting to remove the white church from the comfort of the status quo. However, the love in his words and the respect that he showed brought tears to my eyes. This man loved like Jesus, even toward people that refused and oppressed him. He successfully paints a picture of the Christian church in the 1960s and reminded me to actively seek to understand other's perspectives, fight for the voiceless, and alongside the mistreated. Complacency has no place in the Christian walk. Martin Luther King's letter respectfully challenged the religious leader into action, and today remains an essential document for Christians.

[1] Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt, The Religious History of America (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 341.

[2] Jeff Waldrop, CH 506- Week 8 Lecture Notes, (CH 506 Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, CA, Fall 2019,) 19.

[3] Waldrop, 8.

[4] Waldrop, 19.

[5] Waldrop, 19.

[6] Waldrop, 8.

[7] George Wallace, “The Inaugural Address of Governor George Wallace,” Alabama Department of Archives and History,

[8] Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community, (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 11.

[9] Marsh, 11.

[10] Milton Sernett, African American Religious History, Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 519.

[11] “Statement by Alabama Clergymen, April 12, 1963,” Frequently requested Documents, (Stanford December 12, 2000,)

[12] “Statement by Alabama Clergymen,” April 12, 1963.

[13] “Statement by Alabama Clergymen,” April 12, 1963.

[14] Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in African American Religious History, ed. Milton Sernett, Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 520.

[15] King, 523.

[16] King, 527.

[17] King, 523.

[18] King, 524.

[19] King, 524

[20] King, 525.

[21] King, 525.

[22] King, 526.

[23] King, 522.

Read Dr. King's letter

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