Four days prior to the writing of Letter from Birmingham Jail, on April 12, Martin Luther King, Jr. and nearly 50 other protestors and civil rights leaders had been arrested after leading a Good Friday demonstration as part of the Birmingham Campaign, designed to bring national attention to the brutal, racist treatment suffered by blacks in one of the most segregated cities in America—Birmingham, Alabama. The letter dives into the distinctions between what is just and unjust and provides a call and response methodology to “A Call for Unity,” a letter to MLK from Alabama clergymen, the basics of which I’ve outlined below.
A Call for Unity
|Letter from Birmingham Jail|
|An outsider is stirring up trouble||I was invited; Injustice is here|
|King’s plan is “untimely”||Waited over 340 years; “Wait has almost always meant never”|
|King’s plan will incite hatred and violence||The 4-Step plan’s purpose is to open the door to negotiation|
|Preserve the principles of law & order; In the courts, not the streets||
The courts uphold unjust laws
While reading Mandela earlier this semester, I would consistently underline the dates given, making note of what was taking place regarding racism in the United States. While the felt injustices were similar, the clear distinction is that apartheid was law in South Africa. To read King this week, accompanied with Western’s Global Leadership Perspectives provided a fuller framework to the battles raging in both cultural contexts. What I found most interesting was the discussion about both the systems of apartheid and ANC “were characterized by heightened anxiety, of a persecutory kind. Mutual hatred and suspicion meant that both systems put authoritarian and oppressive authority structures in place.” Is that how Mandela would have classified it? What about Tutu? But what was even more striking was the statement that “the leadership example set by Nelson Mandela somehow got lost.” Could we say the same of King’s example in the US? Were they aware of one another and the movements they were each leading, literally on the opposite side of the world one another?
Similarly to Tutu’s sentiments about our humanity being tied to one another, King writes, “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.” The communal aspect continues to be a common thread in our readings – perhaps it is derived from, or points back to the fact that over 80% of the ‘one anothers’ Jesus gives throughout scripture are within the context of community. I firmly believe we were created within and for community, because it so accurately reflects the triune nature of the Creator.
I use Kings letter in my freshman orientation class and end the class with the following. Perhaps these are equally as applicable to us, those on the very tail end of our higher education careers, as they are to those who are just entering:
- What are your gifts & talents? How can you develop them?
- How are you engaging in community?
- How is your education shaping you to meet the needs of others?
- Where are you called to step into for justice? To meet a need?
- What can you do now?
 Western, 146.
 King, 1.