Birmingham lessons worth re-teaching, one day after Charlottesville

Events Saturday in Charlottesville led me to re-read a booklet I purchased while visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights institute earlier this summer. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” 55 years ago. His words resonate just as powerfully in 2017 as when they were penned in 1962. Confinement in a narrow jail cell afforded Dr. King the opportunity to “write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers,” as he described it.


Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located across from the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram (West) Park.

His thinking is a masterpiece about civil rights, on the duty of those calling themselves Christians, and of the obligations of all people of good will when confronted with evil. The letter, written to ministers in Birmingham, earned Dr. King both the Nobel Peace Prize and undying admiration all over the globe.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he wrote. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

In describing the immorality of the political leaders of the time, Dr. King commented that “Lamentable, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…. groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” He was describing conditions in Birmingham in 1962, but the words also perfectly depict the horrific actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017.

Dr. King had devised a new strategy for civil rights in the U.S., utilizing non-violent direct action in the face of injustice. Critics of this labeled it extremism. Initially he disliked being called an extremist for this strategy, but over time he came to accept the title, even to extol it. “Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’” He wrote.

charlottesville protects nbc news

Charlottesville, Virginia, counter protest photo. Source: NBC News

Let’s be clear: Groups which adopt Nazi and KKK symbols and tactics are not advocates of Dr. King’s strategy. Those who practice violence in Charlottesville are criminals, just as are those who have practiced violence in Baltimore and other places in the recent past.

A good portion of “Letters from Birmingham Jail” is dedicated to the obligations of Christians and following laws, and how to determine (and not obey) unjust laws.  Dr. King expressed disappointment at his fellow ministers for their lack of support for civil rights. He called white moderates who failed to see the need of establishing racial justice “dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”


It’s self-examination time. What about you? What about me?

The violent protesters in Charlottesville were young. They all have mothers and fathers, school teachers and coaches, influencers and role models. What was their upbringing? Who taught them what’s bad, good from evil?

The book of Deuteronomy calls upon parents to instruct their children on right from wrong.  Beyond that, the elders and wise men and women in our society should be doing whatever we can to squash evil thinking.  The prophet Micah instructed a nation to “Do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Today, more than 55 years after Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, that lesson needs re-teaching more than ever in our land.

*    *    *

KUDOS to Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for their article “How journalists should handle racist words, images and violence in Charlottesville.”  It contains great guidelines including advice on language, politics, and avoiding code words and shorthand writing. Here’s a link:

Finally, I’ve been working on a “What I’ve learned this summer” blog, but put it aside in light of Saturday’s tragic events in Charlottesville. I’ll get that out later this month

Letters from Birmingham jail can be found in many places. Here’s a link to one location, the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University:

Biblical sources: Deuteronomy 6:5-9 (Parts known as the Shema in the Jewish faith)  and Micah 6:8

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