I remember the first time I had the horror and pleasure of reading Martin Luther King Jr’s, Letter from Birmingham Jail. I was somewhere in graduate school, buried in the depth’s of Taylor Branch’s epic Parting the Waters, when a passage that Branch mentioned drove me to find the letter King wrote in the margins of a newspaper while he was jailed for participating in non-violent protest in Birmingham in 1963.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like for King to read the statement from eight local clergy members that called for locals to withdraw support from King, to stop their demonstrations, and rely on negotiation to end segregation in their community, when negotiation had not worked before. I cannot imagine the fury, sense of injustice, and resolve that the statement must have provoked.
But in a rational response, King set out to answer the clergy who would seek to undermine him, men he considered much like himself, men of God, who were supposed to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves. Instead of subjugating himself to the clergymen, as many people might have done while sitting in jail, King attacked the clergymen’s own religiosity, since they were condoning and supporting the status quo of inequality and oppression.
King’s message in the letter was this: all men are God’s children, and thus, equal in their value, and should be treated equally. Condoning anything else was ungodly, in King’s eyes.
He expected religious leaders to be the seekers of justice, which is what drew him to the public spotlight.
…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greaco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town.
…I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…
King was most revered for his ability to stay calm in the face of injustice, to march without violence, to preach love and unity and hope, and to inspire with his eloquent messages. But for me, he seems most real when he was the most incensed, when he wasn’t as scripted. Something about his raw emotion speaks to me at a much deeper level than speeches like I Have a Dream.
When I discuss King with my students, I rarely discuss I Have a Dream as the most influential or charismatic example of King’s work. Instead, I give them a snippet, just two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of King’s last speech, and for me, the most important one. It was the end of a scripted speech given at a rally for striking sanitation workers, but King finished the speech in what some would say a prophetic way, since he was assassinated the following day. The last two minutes of the speech were a response to the bomb threat that had delayed King’s plane before flying to Memphis for the rally. Again, King could have hidden in fear, he could have bowed down to the threats, but instead, he flew to Memphis, he rose up, and ended the speech with thunderous words of hope, and faith, and a directive for his followers to continue the fight for equality, even if he wasn’t there to see it through.
Today, as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to seek out the full text of some of King’s work, and remember what he fought for, because the fight is ongoing. It may not be happening in your town, but’s it’s happening somewhere, and King would call upon us all to stand up for injustice and to fight for those who cannot defend themselves.
Check out more about Martin Luther King Jr., and the modern African American Freedom Struggle, with dozens of primary documents available for viewing, at The Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University