Martin Luther King, Jr. the Historian (Reflections on “Letter from Birmingham Jail”)

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Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham jail (1963)

In reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I could not help but sit in awe as I read his lengthy letter written from inside a jail cell. This letter, written in response to “A Call for Unity,” an article written by eight, white, Alabama clergymen, was to serve as a response to those who believed that King acted inappropriately for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, as an outsider, for creating immense tension with his demonstrations, and for the inopportune timing of said demonstrations. As I read over the material present in King’s letter, I cannot help but be impressed with his extensive historical knowledge. In a day without Google and Wikipedia, I am awestruck at how King put together such a well-written letter (in his jail setting).

As King had a Ph.D. in theology I am not surprised that he had such a strong grasp on Biblical history and centuries-old theological philosophy, however, I am impressed nonetheless. In this letter he referenced the travels of the Apostle Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas’ theory on unjust laws, and philosophical ideology of Martin Buber. Furthermore, he does more than references; he uses relevant religious material to correlate with his current predicament.

In his analysis of civil disobedience King reminded the Alabama clergymen of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and of their refusal to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar. More so, he wrote of times in early Christian history when there were those willing to face hungry lions rather than to submit to the unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

From Socrates to the 1954 United States Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King, Jr. does an excellent job in outlining not only American history, but also world history, to further prove his point. King referenced the start of American history, with the Pilgrims’ establishment of Plymouth Bay Colony; ending with a reference to recent world history, praising the freedom fighters for illegally helping Jews as Hitler legally attempted to exterminate them.

What I may find most impressive is King’s access to quotes pertaining to extremism, King’s jail time, and America’s leaders’ thoughts on men and equality. Below is an excerpt from his letter that contains quotes from both secular and spiritual history (and remember this is before the internet).

Martin Luther King Birmingham Demonstration
Martin Luther King headed to a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama (1963)

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?

I always find it interesting to see how prominent historical figures use their influence to relate history to their current dilemmas; this is an exceptional case.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I agree. King used these familiar quotations to place his actions and the civil rights movement in general squarely in the context of Christianity, Christian history, American history, and American ideals.

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