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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 ...

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June 2011

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