Remembering Birmingham: Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter to America – 50 Years Later

Courtesy of Ed Gilbreath
Courtesy of Ed Gilbreath

In our “Christians Celebrating Black History” Series, we have featured Edward Gilbreath’s book Reconciliation Blues by defining racial reconciliation and the challenge of being a black evangelical in a white man’s world, discussing America’s race issue and compliance of the American church, and pondering the connection between racial reconciliation and evangelism.

Today, I share a few interview questions concerning Ed’s recent ebook (IVP, $2.99) entitled, Remembering Birmingham: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter to America – 50 Years Later.

This year, 2013, marks the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Why did you choose to focus on King’s letter?

Edward Gilbreath: Understandably, most people will point to Dr. King’s brilliant “I Have a Dream” speech as his definitive message. It’s obviously his most-repeated national moment. But I would argue that his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” stands as an equally extraordinary moment in time, capturing King at his most courageous—and at his most human. Just like Martin Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to the Wittenberg church door, King’s jailhouse manifesto is a document teeming with deep and challenging ideas about truth, justice and faith. His freestyle meditation addresses the events taking place in Birmingham and the Deep South of 1963, but it also has relevance for the post-Christian, post-racial, Red State/Blue State cacophony of twentieth-first century America. More than any other writing or speech by King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” captures the spiritual and social essence of the man and his mission. In it, you can see all the theological, philosophical and political ideas and principles that shaped King’s Christian vision. And my feeling is that they are ideas and principles that we’d do well to reclaim today.

And what was the significance of King’s “Letter from Birmingham”?

Edward: The Birmingham campaign started out slowly, but after King was arrested on Good Friday for his movement’s public demonstration on the streets of Birmingham, things began to change. While in solitary confinement, he was shown a newspaper op-ed column by eight moderate clergymen in Birmingham. While they supported civil rights for blacks, they felt King and his movement were going about it all wrong. They implored him to wait for the laws to take effect. But King believed the black community had waited long enough, they needed to take a stand and stir the conscience of Birmingham and of the nation. His response to the op-ed was a passionate letter that spelled out the reasons why the movement couldn’t wait and pointed out the differences between just and unjust laws. He wrote the letter on the margins of the newspaper, on scraps of any paper he could gather, and when he ran out, he reportedly wrote on the toilet paper in his cell. After its publication weeks later, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” would become one of the most lucid and convincing arguments for social justice and civil rights that we’ve ever had. What’s more, it was rooted in the theology and principles of the Christian gospel.

What is significant about the “Letter from Birmingham” for us now?

Edward: Today, in many ways, we’ve allowed our politics to divide us and define who we are as people of faith. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” challenges us to strip away the cultural impediments and focus on the essential demands of the gospel and what King called “the beloved community.” It’s a call to grace, justice, empathy and reconciliation. If we’re only interested in loving our neighbor when they live in the same neighborhood as we do or vote for the same candidates as we do, then we’ve missed the full call of the gospel. In addition, today issues like immigration reform are forcing us to figure out what it means to live out the call of Micah 6:8 “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In King’s day, even the people on his side were telling him to slow down and just wait. He knew that was another way of denying true justice. Today, in regards to many issues, we may face the same dilemma as the American church of 1963: Do we wait or courageously seek to live out the truth of our faith today?

How do you think we as a society should commemorate this 50-year anniversary of King’s work?

Edward: I think it would be good for all of us—the church, local communities, the nation—to read and reflect upon King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” together, and then ask ourselves, what is just and unjust about our institutions today? And for those who can, I would highly recommend visiting Birmingham as well as other historic landmarks of the civil rights movement. Retracing the steps of the men and women and teenagers who marched for justice in downtown Birmingham can be profound. And a visit to places like Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute museum, Kelly Ingram Park and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed by a Ku Klux Klan bomb while they attended Sunday school, can be a life-changing experience. These things can remind us that it wasn’t that long ago that our nation was blinded by the sins of racism and injustice.

What was your hope as you wrote Remembering Birmingham?

Edward: First of all, I feel totally inadequate for the task. I mean, there’s a multitude of books about King and the civil rights movement, so who am I to think that I have something fresh to say? At the same time, I felt compelled to tell the story from the perspective of an African American evangelical who was born a year after Dr. King’s death. Many people from my generation and younger don’t always have a full picture of who King really was—his courage, his radicalism, his faith, his humanity. I wanted to shed light on these aspects of King and, above all, show the church that everything he did was driven by his Christian faith and values. I hope Remembering Birmingham can be an entry way for some to discover King anew.

All information printed with the permission of InterVarsity Press.

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