by Kisten Thompson on behalf of the Racial Justice Team
We commemorate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a Federal Holiday on the third Monday of each January. We have done this as a nation since 1986. We remember Dr. King as a civil rights leader in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as a committed proponent of non-violence as means of protest and activism for systemic change, and as a remarkable preacher, prophet and pacifist. Dr. King’s actual birthdate is January 15 and he would have been 95 years old today had his life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet April 4, 1968 at the age of 39.
Dr. King was known for his soaring rhetoric and use of scripture in calling for change, equality and full acceptance as guaranteed under the laws of this country. One of his most well-known writings is “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written just over 60 years ago.
To give a little background, Birmingham, AL was at that time known as the most segregated city in America. While integration laws were on the books in 1962, white business owners kept the stores segregated and refused to remove “whites only” and “coloreds only” signs. So, students and activists undertook a campaign to peacefully force change and integration. The Birmingham leaders invited Dr. King to Birmingham to help lead the efforts. The protests were met with resistance, violence and arrests on the part of the police.
On April 12, 1963 Dr King, Dr. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Fred Shuttleworth were all arrested and 8 white clergy wrote an open letter condemning the protests as “unwise” and “untimely”. This resulted in the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written on pieces of paper as Dr King could get hold of them.
He uses Amos 5:21-24 to reply to the white clergy and public at large. Here are the verses from which Dr. King drew inspiration:
I hate, I despise your feast days, And I do not savor your sacred assemblies.
22 Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings.
23 Take away from Me the noise of your songs,
For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.
24 But let justice run down like water,
And righteousness like a mighty stream.
And Dr. King wrote:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”
Dr King further wrote, “Wait has almost always meant ‘Never’” and “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negros great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the The White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice,” and he advocated that “the white church needs to take a principled stand or risk being dismissed as an irrelevant social club.”
As we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday, our thought for today might be to wonder what might move us to protest? Or to be arrested? Or to call out people in authority who are oppressing others? Or to join a movement that is committed to dismantling racist systems? Or to read, study, listen, act for justice? What might make our hearts burn for justice and for us to become extremists for love?