While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. wrote that.
Okay, think about that sentence a bit.
“While confined…..in the Birmingham city jail,”
Do you know anyone who willingly allowed themselves to be arrested because of something that was done that they felt was wrong? Up until George Floyd’s murder, I didn’t.
Now I do.
On a night of protests about George Floyd’s murder, they went to Rosa Parks Circle minutes after the “demonstration” time was done and the police were starting to get everyone out of the park area. A couple from my kids youth group – some of the volunteer leaders – felt that the murder of George Floyd was strong enough reason to take a stand.
So they went to the middle of Rosa Parks Circle and quietly sat on the ground in the middle of the circle and waited. Waited for the police to come and tell them the protest was done at 7:00 PM and it was 7:15. The police came and told them to leave. They didn’t move.
The police came back. And this time the police made sure that they left – because they got escorted to the police department.
It wasn’t angry, it wasn’t violent, it wasn’t loud. But to me it was very effective because it was so very well thought out. They went to Rosa Parks Circle knowing that what they were doing was in direct opposition to a police order. From what I have heard, they were prepared and had their bail money already raised. If I had known they were raising money for bail, I would have gladly contributed.
Why’d they do it? Very simply, because there was a discrepancy between what they felt was right and what the government said was right.
Okay,time warp coming……
We’re back in the Civil Rights era and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is sitting in jail in Birmingham. Why’s he in jail? Because of something he did that was really wrong? No, not really. He was in jail because there were things happening that the government was allowing and he thought they were wrong. He thought, “No Colored People allowed” was wrong. He thought that having signs that said, “No colored people served here” was wrong.
And you know what? It was. And it still is.
Getting back to the statements from the Letters from the Birmingham Jail” and the three important words in this sentence:
• “Your” statement calling…. I believe that he specifically used “Your” rather than “the church” or “your church” or the First National Baptist Church of Southern Alabama. Dr. ML King Jr. chose “your” because it personalized it and it made it clear to whoever read them that Dr. King did not see them as speaking on behalf of the church. Their statements were about them and about what this did to them. And let’s be honest, there were probably some of the people who signed the statement or who go to those churches that didn’t agree with them.
• “Untimely” – So why did they say that Dr. King’s coming to town and holding marches and such was “untimely?” Well, if you read into it further, you find out that they wanted to try to negotiate, to reason with the opposition and to come to agreements that way. Further research will tell you that there are a variety of positions in the local government that were changing and the clergy who wrote to Dr. King wanted to wait until they all had a chance to settle in because (I’m surmising, they thought that the people in new positions in the government would be more open to change if it wasn’t presented on their first day on the job. How did Dr. King respond to that?
“Justice delayed is Justice denied.”
• “The third word is “unwise.” To translate into more “everyday” language, “that’s a stupid thing to do.” So basically, these pastors are saying, “Dr. King, we know this better than you, we are from here, you are from Atlanta and we don’t think that now is the time to be having outsiders protesting because you all aren’t from around here and because……”
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made it about as plain as can be. You want to fight injustice then you need to go to where injustice is. You can’t sit in your recliner in Atlanta and point west to Birmingham and say, “Uh, yeah, go fix that over there.” You see injustice in Grand Rapids, you fight injustice in Grand Rapids.
We’ll talk more about this as we continue to unpack the wisdom in the Letters from a Birmingham Jail. We’ve got a lot of other things to look at as well.