Thoughts on MLK’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’

Photo Credit: Bettman/Corbis

This weekend our nation celebrates one of our history’s greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Earlier this week, my friend Kristy mentioned a blog post featuring a quote from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I had heard quotes from the letter before, things like, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” But I had never read the whole thing through.

Wow, what a powerful piece of literature! I was so inspired by the incredible leadership displayed by Dr. King.

And yet, I was grieved as well. Grieved that almost 50 years after the letter was written, we still have so far to go. Grieved particularly that white American evangelical Christians like the recipients of the letter—like myself—have often fallen behind the curve in matters of racial justice, or even been on the wrong side of the battle altogether.

Would you join me in celebrating Dr. King’s birthday by reading his famous letter? I’ve excerpted the portions that particularly struck me, below. To read the letter in its entirety, click here. If you are unfamiliar with the context of the letter, this short Wikipedia entry will help bring the letter to life.

Excerpts from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

…I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth…

…I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not…the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…

…We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God…

…I felt that the white ministers…would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows…

…In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular…

…There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’…

…Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo…

…But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust…

…I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle…

…Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.


It’s not too late for us. We could still turn things around. We can choose to humble ourselves, to listen and learn from our minority brothers and sisters. We can restore honor where there has been shame. We can use our voice to speak for the voiceless, wield our power on behalf of the powerless.

And in so doing honor the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Name we worship alongside him, Jesus Christ.

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