Revisiting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


On Easter weekend, fifty-five years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama and penned a letter that continues to hold significance culturally, socially, and spiritually.

While in jail, Dr. King had been handed a newspaper that contained a letter from white Alabaman clergymen making an argument that although social injustices existed, the battle for civil rights should be fought in the courts, not the streets of Birmingham.  Dr. King began to write a response in the margins of the newspaper calling for white moderates to put their actions where their words were instead of telling those fighting for civil rights to wait.  But it did a little more than that.  It also contains some powerful insights for the modern church.

To provide some historical context, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Birmingham in 1963 to provide support to the demonstrations taking place there.  Right before planned protests on Easter weekend, a court order was given forbidding them to lead any more demonstrations.  King and his colleagues were worried because they had always protested legally and were afraid of being viewed as mere “trouble makers” if they went about things in the wrong manner.  On Good Friday morning, he told his colleagues he was prepared to be arrested and he led a march into downtown Birmingham.  He was indeed arrested as he expected, and it was while in jail, he penned one of his most famous written works: Letter from a Birmingham jail.

Read the full text here.  This version also includes the letter from white clergymen that prompted him to write this response.  (The King Center also has many other letters, sermons, and speeches from Dr. King archived here, and it’s worth taking some time to look around).

Here are a few thoughts from his letter for Christians to consider:

“If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Martin Luther King Jr. is of course remembered as a civil rights champion, but he was first and foremost a preacher of the gospel.  These words make it clear that he is as frustrated by “social” Christians as he was by social injustices.  And perhaps the two go hand in hand.  If we are truly working to serve the Lord, then we will also be concerned about the well-being of our neighbors.

“Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into downright disgust.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Much has been written about why young people leave the church, and based on Dr. King’s comments in his letter it is clearly not a new issue.  And it probably wasn’t a new issue in 1963 when he lamented this fact.  It is just another reminder that unless young people grow up seeing a church that truly seeks to worship God and reach out to uplift our fellow man, then the church rightly leaves itself open to the question of “why bother?”  There’s no shortage of places that young people can go to socialize or to exchange ideas.  The church is called to be more than that.

In conclusion, taking a look again at this letter from a Christian perspective can remind us to truly live as impassioned people before the Lord.  This means true worship over social hour, true service over prestige, and truly seeking justice for our fellow man over accepting the status quo.

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