Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Letter from the Birmingham Jail
© 1963 Martin Luther King Jr.
35 pages

Don't say it can't be done:
The battle's just begun
Take it from Doctor King,
You too can learn to sing,
So -- drop the gun!
(Pete Seeger, "Take It From Doctor King")

Despite his impact on my own local and national history, until recent years Martin Luther King Jr. has been but another of history's many characters. Somewhere between reading Henry David Thoreau and Howard Zinn, however, he lept from the pages of books and became a personality for me to reckon with. Dr. King penned the letter from his Birmingham jail cell after being arrested for civil disobedience, part of an extended campaign on the part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups to force tradition-bound states like Alabama and Georgia to confront the illegal and inhumane practice of segregation. The letter is a response to his critics, who question the appropriateness and usefulness of his campaign.

Although maintaining that ordinarily he would never respond at length to his critics -- for there were many, -- the monotony of his life in prison affords him the opportunity and makes the process seem much more appealing, giving him something to keep his mind busy. After responding to claims that the nonviolent movement is too extreme or provocative, King expresses his own concerns -- lamenting the apathy and impotence of the church, which has turned away from what he sees as Jesus' mandate for social justice in favor of worshiping tradition. He addresses the spirit of conservative moderation in general, criticizing its impotence while affirming that justice must take precedence before legalism.

Letter is a marvel, masterfully written. It contains much, despite the few pages. Although written in response to particular social circumstances, King's passion and opinions are still applicable today.Additionally, the letter is a valuable piece of history, explaining the need for and the application of nonviolent activism.  Although I do not share Dr. King's religious beliefs, I admire the ends which they serve. His endearing humility and passion for both humanity and our most noble aspirations make him one of the titans of progressive Christianity and a champion of the human spirit.

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