King’s letter from the Birmingham jail was written in response to an open letter, published in the Birmingham News, calling on those engaged in non-violent resistance to give up that method, and pursue their cause in the courts. The letter was signed by seven Alabama Protestant ministers and a rabbi.
King’s response, his now-famous letter from jail, is in the top five pieces of public/political speech in our nation’s history. Like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the Letter combines passion, logic, and wisdom in a way that is deeply satisfactory to a just and compassionate sensibility about how our common life should be. For King, the time was ripe to prod the nation’s conscience through peaceful protest. Moderation had become just another way to continue denying a whole race of people their equal rights.
Not often remarked, though very plain in the letter, is King’s critique of the moderate church– and, by extension, his critique of the moderate churchmen to whom he is responding. “Moderate” here is not a compliment. In a similar vein, it reminds me of how Bernard of Clairvaux warned against “lukewarmness” in the spiritual life:
Sometimes halfway is really nowhere.
Here is an excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The year is 1963:
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust….