MLK’s Letter From Birmingham Jail – Aspiring to be Free – 1/17/10 – Amos 6:1-7

On April 16, 1963 MLK Jr. was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was in August of that same year that King would make his I Have a Dream Speech in Washington DC which has become, in a sense, an icon of his life – the primary way we have chosen to remember his message.  The dream, as communicated to the nation that day, was one of racial reconciliation in which America lived up to its ideal to be a place where all people are born equal, where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  It’s a dream we continue to hold and which has captured the hearts and minds of many people.  For this we are grateful and thank God.

This weekend our nation celebrates King’s life and legacy.  I have to admit that ever since becoming more aware of the full breadth of King’s witness — a witness that included strong opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as beginning to connect the dots between racism, poverty, excessive materialism, and militarism – a witness cut short by an assassins bullet in Memphis Tennessee on April 4, 1968…since trying to slowly become a student of King’s witness, I have been a little perplexed at how we choose to remember King and that he is so highly regarded in our society, a national hero.  The perplexity, the inherent tension in this honoring of King has played out on the national and international stage over the last year.  A little over a year ago, through the hard work of many campaigning volunteers, our nation elected its first African American president.  King’s legacy has been rightly cited as a major cause of what has allowed us to break through a massive barrier in this country.  A Pew Research Center poll released this past week noted that “African-Americans are dramatically more upbeat about their progress in this country than at any time during the past quarter century.”  All this is cause for celebration, the dream finding realization.    

But then, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, a stage shared by great peacemakers of history including King himself, President Obama chose to minimize the constructive roll that nonviolent movements can make on the world stage and to offer a justification for our present war in Afghanistan, laced with a healthy dose of American exceptionalism.  The economic crisis of our country and the lack of solid accountability for those who took huge risks with other people’s money for personal gain calls for a soul searching for which we are apparently not yet ready to face as a nation.  We can hail King the racial reconciler, but either openly rebuke or ignore King the champion of nonviolence and economic justice.  His word remains a hard word.       

So it’s appropriate for us now to listen to King from a place where he would very likely also be today, would he have been allowed to live a long life.  From behind the bars of a jail cell, King writes to fellow clergy, white, who are urging him to back off from his campaign.  It is a lengthy letter and we can only hear some excerpts – it’s well worth reading in full at least once a year, especially if you’re a white clergy.  We will listen together to some of the words of this letter, and I will interject some commentary, suggesting some ways that this letter continues to speak to us and propel us toward a dream that is still so far from being realized.  King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail starts in this way:

————————-  Reading from Letter

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms…

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.


One of those eighth century BC prophets that King mentions, the prophet Amos, preached this: “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mt. Samaria.  Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches…but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph (Israel).”  The words are the opposite of what has become a beatitude of our culture, “blessed are you who are at ease in your home, and those who have absolute security in the homeland.”  For Amos, ease and security is more a cause for caution than blessedness.  The picture of Rev. King sitting in solitary confinement in his jail cell, writing to the white clergy sitting in their homes and churches seems to carry with it the same message.  King is writing as one who has given up a good amount of ease and security in order to place himself in the struggle of his people.  He is being urged to slow down, back off, step back, by moderate clergy somewhat sympathetic to his cause but not comfortable with the uncomfortableness that this movement has brought about. 

It’s perhaps an understandable contension going on here.  If society as it is set up has always worked for you, always basically allowed you to get what you need and protected you from harm, why carry any sense of urgency?  Why upset the order of things too much?  King insists that even though one may have been dealt a hand that has allowed one to live a life of relative security, that one must never forget, to put it in the words of Amos, to “grieve over the ruin of Joseph,” to allow one’s life to be affected by the lack of security that others experience.  A danger of being at ease and having all that we need is that we may start to believe that the network of mutuality doesn’t ask anything of us.  Doesn’t demand sacrifice.  Doesn’t make us accountable to our brothers and sisters.    

——————————- Reading from Letter        

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.

And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. 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.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.


In the most recent issue of The Mennonite magazine, outgoing executive director Ron Byler cited this part of King’s Letter and urged us to be extremists for love, truth, and goodness.  Much has changed since King wrote this letter, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that being an extremist is a dangerous proposition.  It’s a word that is most often used now to refer to those whose extremism drives them to acts of violence and destruction.  As King describes, it’s a label he first shunned but then came to accept and even embrace.  There is only one form of extremism which adds to life rather than subtracts from it, and that is being an extremist for love. 

Part of my interpretation of Ron Byler’s essay is that he is encouraging the church to not give up what is most important to it.  We can be in disagreement about different aspects of theology, biblical interpretation, and the way we do mission, and these disagreements call for a form of moderation in how we relate with each other and seek to understand one another.  But there need be no moderation when it comes to love.  We are free to love to the utmost.  To be extreme lovers.

Being an extremist for love is different than being any other kind of extremist.  It’s not a democrat extremist, a republican extremist, a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim extremist.  No kind of extremist for any kind of partisan issue.  Love cuts a different way.  I’m still pretty certain that being extremists for love will get us into trouble, but it is the kind of constructive trouble that leads toward healing and wholeness. 

—————————- Reading from Letter

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows…

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.


“Things are different now.”  There’s a phrase that can get used in a couple different ways.  In this letter, King uses it as a challenge to energize the contemporary church to be what it is called to be.  The church was once a powerful force for good, driven by a love for God and neighbor…but things are different now.  The church is too easily a chaplain to the culture rather than the driving force transforming the culture.

The phrase can also get used this way.  Things were really bad back during the civil rights movement  when Martin Luther King Jr. preached his sermons and marched with thousands of people for freedom and justice.  But things are different now.  We’ve learned our lesson.  Things aren’t as bad.  Our time doesn’t call for that kind of action.

I think it’s fair to say that no time is ever the same as another, but our time has much more in common with past ages than what we might want to admit.  Things are the same now.

It is still a danger to be at ease in Zion and to miss grieving over the ruin of sisters and brothers.  It is still our divine calling as the church to be followers of Jesus Christ in a broken world.

This may really be the same message as last week.  Which is that this baptismal identity of ours, this ancient calling, lifts us up beyond ourselves and puts us in a place where our lives are lived not just for ourselves, but for God and for the world that God so loves.  When we give ourselves over to Christ, we are giving ourselves over to love and love will not only hold us tight in the womb of those baptismal waters, but also fling us out and lead us in ways we would otherwise not choose to go.

We can come to accept our unease as a divine gift, an awareness of the dis-ease of society and an ever-present urging of the Spirit to place ourselves alongside the sick, the dying, those who have lost their home through the shaking of an earthquake or the explosion of the bombs of warfare, or those in our own zip code who have lost their home to foreclosure or for whatever reason are without a home.

I have a strange prayer for you today, one you may not want to have prayed for you, but one I’m going to offer anyway.  And that is that even while we are given rest and grace in the love of God, that we would also be disturbed by the prophets of God, who refuse to be quiet until all experience the peace and security that God intends for all of us.  Our time is not an exception to others.  The words still haunt and move us.  May we listen with open hearts, and act with sure hands.

——————————- Reading from Letter

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.