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From the Birmingham Jail, MLK Told Christians to Fight Injustice

Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested during civil rights protests in Birmingham, AL in 1963.

Civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered for soaring oratory such as his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963, but in that same year King also penned a memorable essay, his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” 

Sixty years have passed since King wrote his jailhouse jeremiad answering moderate Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious leaders in Birmingham, AL who had questioned the tactics and timing of peaceful protests in the city. King was jailed in Birmingham for leading racial justice demonstrations in what he called “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” His letter was written during his confinement on Apr. 16, 1963, and its criticisms of institutionalized injustice and feckless religion resonate today.

“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound,” wrote King. “It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo.” A Baptist minister himself, King reminded his fellow ministers in 1963 that it was white churches and religious leaders who often colluded with police and politicians in Birmingham and across the South to enforce Jim Crow laws. He scorned ministers who “have been more cautious than courageous and [who] have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” 

In his prison epistle from the Birmingham jail, King called on religious ministers and their congregations to join the movement for justice in Alabama and the rest of this nation. He lamented white churches that “stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” He underlined the truth that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” With writing reminiscent of the words of 19th century African American activist Frederick Douglass, King’s 1963 letter exclaimed that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

When King wrote his jail letter 60 years ago, he expressed disappointment that his fellow clergymen called him an extremist for his nonviolent protests against injustices that had been ignored or endorsed by churches at the time. “Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” he asked religious leaders. 

King’s question is still relevant today when so many “evangelicals” support a former president, Donald Trump, who led a rally of his MAGA cult followers in the right-wing mecca of Waco, TX while lionizing those who were jailed for extremist actions during the insurrectionist violence that rocked Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.

On Apr. 4, 1967—exactly one year before he was murdered in Memphis, TN in 1968—King gave an oration at Riverside Church in New York that angered Americans on both sides of the political aisle. In the four years that had passed since he had led protests in Birmingham, the Vietnam War had escalated into a major conflict. King’s opposition to the war was blasted by his longtime conservative detractors who called him a communist and by mainstream liberals who claimed that dissenting from the war in Vietnam could dilute the struggle for racial justice here at home. In his Riverside Church message, he said that he felt compelled to speak out against a war waged by what he called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” 

Twenty years ago, in 2003, King’s words resounded again as an American dissident movement rose up in opposition to the Bush-Cheney administration’s invasion of Iraq. During the MLK holiday in January 2003, I was in Washington, DC with thousands of other Americans who gathered to protest the impending war. Before speaking to the crowd, Vietnam War veteran and Born on the Fourth of July author Ron Kovic told me that he was there because “my love of country brings me here today and my faith that my country is going to renew itself.” Actress Jessica Lange warned against efforts to “turn back the clock on civil rights, on women’s rights, on social justice and on environmental policies.” The spirit of Dr. King was a palpable presence during that massive march 20 years ago. His warning that “we face the danger of a right-wing takeover and eventually a fascist society” is one that should be heeded today.