6 Thoughts While Reading the Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Unlike the hundreds of Philadelphians who took to the streets protesting yesterday, I didn’t do anything particularly special to commemorate MLK day. I did, however, conclude my three day weekend by re-reading Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I hadn’t read this essay in its entirety since high school. Since then, I’ve read some more stuff, thought a little bit about things like justice, and generally spent more time being alive – thus, my perspective on this text is a little bit different than it was five years ago (though that’s the beauty/point of re-reading great texts, isn’t it?). Here’s what stood out to me this time around:

He’s writing to pastors. I didn’t realize this before today, or at least, it didn’t stand out to me as notable before. But that’s jarring – one of the single most important documents in recent history is a polite yet fierce argument about why white Christian leaders should care about things like justice and human dignity. This gem particularly stood out to me: “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” Here’s hoping that the church as a whole has made steps in the right direction on this one.

Oh my gosh, this guy is well-read. I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising, but Dr. King drops all the big names here – Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, even T.S. Eliot.

Am I a white moderate? One of the most uncomfortable parts of this re-read was when Dr. King talks about “white moderates”: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice…Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Now I’m wondering if, in the face of injustice (specifically/especially racial injustice) I’m too passive and moderate.

Is Dr. King a philosopher-king? Recently I revisited Plato’s Republic, and I’ve been thinking about his crazy idea of a philosopher-king – a lover of wisdom who doesn’t seek or want power, but who gets it anyway because everyone knows that people like that are most fit to rule. I can’t think of too many politicians who fall into the philosopher-king category, but as I was re-reading this letter, I was over and over again astounded by Dr. King’s wisdom and humility. I wish that he had had more power when he was alive, and that more of our current leaders emulated him.

[The uneasy feeling that 90% of this is still relevant today]. There are entire paragraphs in King’s Letter that, if they originally showed up in a speech or on a blog today, wouldn’t be out of place at all. Yes, we’ve made progress since (and because of) Martin Luther King. But his plea for justice and reconciliation is still applicable, and that’s simultaneously inspiring and disturbing.

This thing is a great book. One of my college professors once predicted that this essay will be read by people all over the world for centuries to come, up there with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant. Years later, I get why that is. Although Dr. King is addressing a very particular group of people in a particular place about a particular issue, he writes about justice and the law in a way that will always be valuable in the civilized world. On this topic, I’m not sure that he says very much that’s original – that’s not the point. The timelessness and importance comes from the clever way that he synthesizes millennia of western thought into a few pages, bringing it into our post-Enlightened and extremely diverse society, while practically applying it to an issue that affects millions and landed him in a Birmingham jail.

One Comment

  1. I think the philosopher king in Plato’s republic is bruthish and would degenerate into a despotism. The Republic isn’t a political treatise but a build up to a story of Greek vs Atlantis. I do not agree with his strong use of censor-ship, I think its absurd to ban artists and was ssurprised he would even bring up such a point. Over rated considering the long theological diatribe in the next dialogue and a major tease of the third part. Its a very over rated dialogue considering what it leads to.


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