Martin Luther King’s letter from his Birmingham jail cell in April 1963 remains relevant today not only as a justification for non-violent demonstrations against racial injustice – sadly still an urgent issue nearly 60 years later – but for its persuasive approach in finding common ground to deal with disagreements.

King’s letter responded to “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense” by the leading clergy in Alabama who opposed King’s demonstrations. The eight white clergymen – Catholic, Methodist and Episcopalian bishops, a Baptist pastor, the moderator of Alabama’s Presbyterian Synod and a rabbi from a Birmingham temple – supported racial justice but advocated achieving resolution through the courts and local negotiations.

The clergymen pointed to recent public events in Birmingham that showed signs of a new constructive approach to racism. King’s presence in Birmingham, they argued, was unwise and untimely because it threatened the possibility of fruitful negotiations between local Black and white citizens. The clergy reiterated their stance against hatred and violence, and while they saw King’s actions as technically peaceful, they also viewed these demonstrations as initiating hatred and violence – and therefore not contributing to the resolution of local problems.

King’s response to the clergymen provides us with a master class in civil dialogue by offering a sustained argument that sought to persuade his critics based on shared values rather than the all-too-common approach today of speaking only to those already convinced of one’s position with no attempt to reach out to the opposition. King acknowledged the genuine good will of his critics and found common ground with his fellow clergymen in the Judeo-Christian tradition. King thought the clergy in the South had drifted from the tradition and his approach toward justice rather than theirs was more aligned with their common faith.

King rebutted their criticism of his outsider status by pointing to his role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference including its local chapter in Birmingham but then identified himself with the 8th century Jewish prophets and the apostle Paul as outsiders who entered diverse communities speaking out against injustice and preaching the gospel of freedom.

King concurred with the clergymen’s call for negotiations but pointed to Birmingham’s history of broken promises, failed negotiations, and its abysmal record of segregation, police brutality, and unresolved bombings of homes and churches. Negotiations would become possible only by dramatizing these injustices and establishing creative tension.

King pointed to the writings of Augustine and Aquinas and the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber to distinguish just from unjust laws and how segregation statutes unjustly distorted the soul and damaged the personality and gave the segregationist a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. He offered the clergy insight into what those laws did to Black citizens who were “harried by day and haunted by night” and “plagued by inner fears and outer resentments,” and demeaned into becoming nobodies in this society.

The great stumbling block toward Black freedom, King argued, was not the white supremacist but moderates like these eight clergymen who seemed more devoted to law and order than justice. By setting a distant future timetable for another person’s freedom, the clergy exhibited paternalism and complacency with the status quo.

King expressed disappointment that the religious leaders had not challenged the dominant Southern view about racial justice. He contrasted their brand of Christianity with the early Christians who earned a reputation as being disturbers of the peace and outside agitators for justice.

King turned the tables on the clergy urging them to join his quest for justice, a path in concert with their own religious traditions and in contrast with the extremes of protecting a racist status quo or fending off militant Black Nationalism.

King’s letter encourages us to restore the art of civil discourse and reminds us that those who disagree with us are not our enemies. We share rich civic and religious traditions that can be drawn upon to persuade each other to forge a common future.

—Special to The Press Herald


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