Guest / Limited Access /

It may have been the most civil statement ever made in thoroughly uncivil times.

Responding to fellow clergy who criticized the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his towering, magnificent "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in 1963.

It's time that King's letter—and the spirit and tone in which it was written—be re-examined by every pundit, every pastor, every activist, and every politician who rightly bemoans the demise of civil discourse in the U.S.

If anyone had a right to unleash an uncivil, scathing, ad hominem attack on his opponents, it was King. It is hard for younger people to imagine (and getting harder for many of us older ones to remember) the conditions under which many African Americans lived throughout the South just over 40 years ago. Segregation, lynchings, African American churches and homes firebombed. Jim Crow laws even prevented "colored people" from attending the circus and playing pool with whites.

Yet civil rights leaders painfully, persistently, and peacefully protested the injustice of segregation. In doing so, they often broke segregation laws. All too often, protesters reaped a reward of fire hoses, police dogs, and incarceration.

Several Birmingham clergy admonished the protesters, urging them to work within the law. King's letter was a response to those clergy.

Put yourself in his place. Who would not be furious, even enraged, by the statement of these ministers? How was King able to respond in such a civil and well-reasoned manner? Remember that King himself was a Baptist pastor. His response reflected his deeply held Christian convictions. He quoted the words of Jesus, and appealed to the example of Paul, as well as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Read These NextSee Our Latest
RecommendedBill Gothard Breaks Silence on Harassment Claims by 30 Women
Bill Gothard Breaks Silence on Harassment Claims by 30 Women
(UPDATED) Popular seminar speaker: 'I have failed to live out some of the very things that I have taught.'
TrendingFive Errors to Drop From Your Easter Sermon
Five Errors to Drop From Your Easter Sermon
If you want to help people see Holy Week with fresh eyes, start by dropping these familiar fallacies.
Editor's PickThe Uneasy Conscience of a Christian Boxing Trainer
The Uneasy Conscience of a Christian Boxing Trainer
Why it may (or may not) be okay to watch adults beat up on one another.
Leave a Comment

Use your Christianity Today login to leave a comment on this article. Not part of the community? Subscribe now, or register for a free account.

hide thisJune June

In the Magazine

June 2011

To continue reading, subscribe now for full print and digital access.