Today the city of Birmingham, Alabama, is inclusive and sensitive to its diverse citizens. However, more than 50 years ago this same city, because of its segregation, racial hatred, and violence, was called “Bombingham.” What brought about the remarkable changes? Ordinary people who were willing to stand up, speak out, and sacrifice for a moral cause they believed in.
A noted example of this stand-up and speak-out mind-set is Martin Luther King, Jr. His famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” made an elegant, systematic statement against segregation and racial injustice. Why did King write the letter? Eight White Alabama clergymen, four bishops, three pastors, and one rabbi, had gone on record calling King’s civil rights efforts “unwise and untimely.” They agreed that racial segregation was a problem, but that it should be handled in the courts instead of in the streets.
Fed up with the deplorable state of affairs, supporters of civil rights in Birmingham launched Project “C,” a systematic peaceful plan that stood for “confrontation.”
When King was arrested, he wrote his famous letter while incarcerated in a Birmingham jail.1 In early May supporters began recruiting children and adults to march against segregation. In retaliation, segregationist Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, turned high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs on them, creating some of the most indelibly violent images to date. Horrified Americans saw it all on the news. In less than two weeks more than 2,500 protesters filled jails, 2,000 of them children.2
King’s letter throughout the 1960s, and even today, motivates people to do something about social injustice. It came to symbolize one’s efforts, large or small, against any type of oppression.
King wasn’t the first to challenge the status quo and practice civil disobedience. In his letter he spoke of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar. He referred to Socrates practicing civil disobedience in ancient Greece, American patriots participating in the Boston Tea Party.
A story in Acts could easily be labeled “Letter From a Jerusalem Jail.” Peter had been arrested for performing miracles and for telling the story of Jesus (Acts 5:12-32). When asked why he persisted in disobeying authorities, Peter answered, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (verse 29).
We can still write letters that make a difference.
First, recognize that many areas of injustice, unfairness, and inequality in society still exist. We can be change agents only when we take time to observe conditions around us.
Second, analyze injustices, and ascertain to which biblical or moral principles they stand opposed. Remember King’s perceptive observation: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”3
Third, accept responsibility. Pray about the situation and ask counsel from persons of experience.
Finally, spend time thinking what we can do, how we can write our letters. Consider the action, the impact, and the reaction to our actions. If there is a potential sacrifice, then count the cost and make the commitment to pay the price.
Write your own letter.