Committed to Listen
On April 16, 1963, from his cell in a Birmingham City Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned a public letter addressed to several of Alabama’s leading white religious leaders, who had openly questioned the pace and the confrontational nature of civil rights demonstrations.
This “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has been called “the most important written document of the civil rights era.”
In the 21-page, typed, double-spaced essay, Dr. King responds to the criticisms these eight white clergymen had made in their recent “A Call for Unity” statement, in which they agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not the streets.
“It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham,” Dr. King agreed, “but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
Dr. King argued that racial violence and oppression demanded a more urgent response — that lukewarm words of support were inadequate, that only nonviolent direct action would result in real progress toward change.
“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Because the work of racial justice is far from finished, and because Rev. Dr. King’s challenge to religious communities and leaders is as relevant today as it was 57 years ago, we came together on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2021 for a public reading of the Letter.
Co-hosted by The BTS Center and the Maine Council of Churches, this event included multiple voices, contemplative music and space for reflection, including that of our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Brown.
Listen and view the recording below: