Each year on Martin Luther King Day, I read or re-read something from his writings.His earliest autobiography, Stride Toward Freedom, is one of my favorite books. It tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Strike and MLK’s rise to national prominence. Strength to Love reveals King’s thought on Civil Disobedience and non-violence. Where Do We Go From Here?, his final book published in his lifetime, provided insight into how to continue the work of justice. Beyond this he has many charismatic sermons and speeches. The Martin Luther King Research at Stanford University has an extensive collection of his papers. Yet it is his King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail that I turn to again and again (follow the link above to read it online).
In this letter, King responds to criticisms from white clergy members, that his actions in fighting for racial equality was ‘unwise and untimely.’ King defends his tactics and timing and gives a theological grounding for civil disobedience. He urges his fellow pastors to join in the fight against racial injustice. Throughout, he has some strong words about white privilege that are unfortunately still relevant, fifty-three years later. Here are a couple of quotations:
” My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”
I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.
King highlighted the systemic nature of injustice, the need to exert social pressure on institutions to effect change, and the need for members of the dominant, white culture to respond actively and compassionately to Blacks who are suffering.
Since his day, gains have been made in the fight for racial equality. But the events of the past few years, the police shootings of African Americans, the Charleston church shooting, the Black Lives Matter movement have all revealed an abiding racial divide. African-Americans (as a group) and white Americans (as a group) are divided about what all this means and what ought to be done about it. This is even more pronounced in the church. Jim Wallis recently observed that according to a Public Research Institute survey, “White Christians are as a whole less likely to believe the experiences of black Americans than non-Christian whites.”
Martin Luther King’s wrote in his Birmingham letter:
I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
This Martin Luther King day, don’t just remember the civil rights movement and King’s contribution to it. Remember this and be thankful. But heed his prophetic call to fight for justice today!
” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”