Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Still Speaks to Us Today

On April 12, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a small, solitary jail cell in Birmingham, reading a newspaper article written by several white clergymen. These men urged Dr. King (and others) to abandon their nonviolent protests in the fight for racial reconciliation. They wrote, “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” 

Dr. King immediately began composing a response in the margins of the newspaper itself. And four days later, having gotten some paper from his lawyer, he finished and sent the now famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

Dr. King’s letter confronted inaction and passivity with the authority of a biblical worldview, particularly one shaped by the gospel. We often talk about Dr. King’s vision of racial equality. But “Letter From Birmingham Jail” reminds us that this wasn’t Dr. King’s vision. It was God’s vision. 

Dr. King called for an end to racial injustice, not by appealing to current laws or even to the will of the majority (both of those, at the time, were against him!), but to a Higher Law. He said that God had created all races of one blood and, thus, all men of all races were brothers.

For Dr. King, what was ultimate, what he appealed to in the face of political opposition, and even a majority that opposed him, was the justice of God. 

“Letter From Birmingham Jail” was a thunderbolt in the battle for racial justice, and it remains a powerful wake-up call to this day. A lot has changed in the past 57 years, but the need for the church to lead in the fight for racial reconciliation is as pressing as ever.

Dr. King’s “Letter” expounded a vision of the world rooted in a Christian worldview, which is why it feels so powerful. God has declared that multi-racial unity is his intention for the church, and he has given his Spirit with the promise that he will make it happen (Ephesians 3:1–13; 4:4–5). Local churches should reflect the unity of the coming kingdom of God by being places where people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, political affiliations, income levels, and even languages come together in unity. This kind of multi-racial unity was one of the distinguishing marks of gospel proclamation in the ancient world, and today’s world needs to see it more than ever.

This is why, at the Summit, we’ve established the Commission for Oneness and Reconciliation (CORE). The mission of CORE is to provide vision, leadership, and guidance to The Summit Church in our pursuit of racial reconciliation, ethnic diversity, and gospel unity (John 17:20–23).

On CORE’s website, you’ll find some excellent resources that capture our vision—no, God’s vision—for racial reconciliation. I pray you’ll spend some time with them in the coming days.

In addition to those resources, I would recommend taking some time today to read Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” You can find the full text here, or listen to Dr. King’s reading of it here.

I’ll end with this excerpt from King’s famous letter:

I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, [but] 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?

 

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