Original December 2007 – Revised/Corrected January 1, 2008
We include these documents in Accountability Central because of the importance of Dr. King’s comments to his fellow clergy leaders in the south…and to clergy and leaders everywhere in the USA. His words continue to ring true and call out to our conscience 44 years later.
While still a young minister (still in his 30’s), and at first a somewhat reluctant “street” warrior in the battle for human rights and dignity for all, in his early pastoral years Dr. King becomes a fierce advocate for Negro rights. As he campaigns, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is jailed in Birmingham for joining the civil protests underway in the early 1960s. There in the cell, on scraps of paper he hides from his jailers Dr. King answers his critics, citing important Biblical precedent, important milestones and events in American history, and the emergence of new nations from former colonies in Africa and Asia. Old colonial empires were shattering. But in the USA the “southern empire” of the post-Civil War era was mostly still intact; this nation had its own version of the South African Apartheid, including structured denial of voting rights for blacks. One day, he writes in the letter, the south will recognize its real heroes.
Dr. King: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Inspiring words!
The young church leader appeals for help in this letter; this was released and widely read in time. Then, he would have a much larger stage for his soaring commentary a few months later on August 28, 1963 when he mounted the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and a quarter-million people awaited his words…”I Have A Dream” is still his best-known work.
But read this letter from inside a jail cell once again (or for the first time) and see if the words don’t ring true for you across four-plus decades. Born to a middle-class family, educated at Morehouse College and then in Boston at grad school (Boston University 1953, Ph.D.). Dr. King was not expected to be in the streets heading marches…he was born to lead from the pulpit, and the “higher pulpit” at that…in a big city church, for example, perhaps there in Atlanta where his father served as pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Which he later joined as co-pastor.)
Instead, early in 1963 still only a few years into his ministry he sits in an Alabama jail cell pleading for help, and calm, and social justice. He could not count on the Kennedy Administration for much – President John Kennedy and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy were reluctant to anger the long-tenured southern senators and congressmen who ruled Capitol Hill. The Kennedy’s needed their support to win re-election in November 1964. The Kennedy brothers were then also reluctant warriors to the civil rights struggle emerging in the 1960s.
Shortly after, Dr. King would be eulogizing the four little African-American girls killed in a cowardly, racist bomb blast at their church in Birmingham…at least one of them a friend of another little girl, Condoleezza Rice, our present Secretary of State. (September 15, 1963.)
Dr. King continued to speak out and to be the voice of civil rights activism, and the leader who could best appeal to the nation’s conscience, north and south, east and west. He would be awarded the Nobel Prize for his non-violence campaigning in December 1964.
But then, in a short while — in June 1968 – US Senator Robert Kennedy would be announcing the slaying of Dr. King (in Memphis) to a crowd of African-Americans…and a dramatic change would occur in Senator Kennedy’s attitudes toward civil rights. He would become a man with a mission that clearly included addressing the wrongs of racism.
And not long after that, sad to recall, it would be his brother, Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizing his late brother, Bobby, the presidential candidate (murdered in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968, as he won the California Democratic Party primary). 1968 – terrible year – two leaders slain within months of each other.
But today there is a prayer for all of us as a People in the concluding words from that jail cell letter four decades ago. Dr. King said, “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.” May that ever be!
On the day that celebrates this brave, intelligent civil rights and religious leader, go back to 1963 and that cold jail cell in Birmingham and read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and think about his struggles when we celebrate him on January 21, 2008. A deserved honor, in our opinion. He helped move this nation forward in many, many ways, in his very short life. Imagine if he had lived his biblical four score-plus years!
Martin Luther Articles on Accountability Central:
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 2008
Letter From A Birmingham Jail
Thoughts on Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Personal Courage