I am a white, middle-class male who has almost always lived in the suburbs. I have never experienced any real prejudice or discrimination. I have never lost a job, been sneered at, or called a name because of race. Racism and social injustice were issues of the past to me; I had never seen or experienced them, so I assumed no one else had either.
It would have been very easy for me to keep my head down and ignorance up, but Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail changed everything for me. Dr. King’s letter revealed more to me about the civil rights movement than I had ever known beforehand, it challenged me to look for the injustice that surrounds me today and fight it.
1. Injustice can be easy to ignore, but we must be on the lookout.
Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham, AL in April of 1963 for helping organize and lead various demonstrations against the segregation and general systemic racism in the city. Many of the local clergy were angry that an outsider from somewhere else would come into their city and demand justice for its citizens. In defense of his actions, Dr. King wrote,
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
Dr. King, and many others with him, were willing to risk their life, limbs, and liberty in defense of others. They were not content to sit in their living rooms in Colorado, New York, Florida, or Tennessee and allow the injustice to continue. Instead they left their comfortable homes and marched for justice and equality in the face of terrible threats and violence.
Their actions from 50 years ago challenged me in my life today. I realized just because I hadn’t experienced injustice did not mean it didn’t exist anymore. I needed to be on the lookout for it, searching for it, and then willing it to confront it.
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Dr. King’s words forced me to confront my own comfort and complacency. They forced me to ask what I could sacrifice and give up in order to bring about a more just world. The way I spend my money, the way I speak, and the way I vote should all reflect Dr. King’s sacrificial attitude, just as his heart reflected the heart of Jesus.
2. I am a beneficiary of the world’s injustices.
As a middle-class white male, I’ve had many advantages in our society. I was never worried about getting new clothes, or being hungry, or having enough money to go on field trips. I never had anyone doubt my capabilities or intelligence. Nor was any of the privilege my fault. I didn’t do anything to earn it. I didn’t hurt anybody in trying to keep it. It was just given to me.
I still had to work hard for success and to prove my abilities. I just did not have to work as hard as the poor and downtrodden of our society.
Letter from Birmingham Jail demonstrated the depth of depravity that America had sunk to. Before reading it, I understood the basics of the Civil Rights Movement. I knew the basic outline of the story, but I had no idea of how deep the discrimination was. Had I been in Birmingham in 1963, I would have argued for patience and perseverance. I would have been one of the ones asking what the rush was because the world did not seem that bad. But then I read:
[W]hen you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you…when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
Dr. King had given a face and attached emotions to this history that still rang true in my life, and they were impossible to ignore. I could no longer look at the modern ghetto and place the blame of its existence on its residents. I could no longer look at prison rates in America and condemn the prisoners without mercy. Letter from Birmingham Jail forced me to accept some of the responsibility for the state of all of my neighbors.
My responsibility did not lie in my actions. I was not furthering injustice by going to school and working a job. My responsibility was found in my inaction because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. King had convinced me, in those first few paragraphs, that I was responsible. He had convinced me that my apathy and insulation were not excuses, and that I would be held accountable for the things I did not do as much as for the things I did do.
So not only do I need to be on the lookout for the injustice in others’ lives, I need to be aware of how I’ve been benefitting from those injustices. Hopefully that awareness will help me give up some of those privileges in order to benefit others.
3. There is still much to be accomplished.
Dr. King’s writings, speeches, and works helped to make our society much better than it was before he lived. People of color and the poor do not experience the same injustices today as they did when he lived.
However, I’ve become more and more aware of the progress that still needs to be made because of Dr. King’s speeches and writings.
The ideas of racial injustice, white or male privilege, and income gaps are divisive and frustrating for many of us, but it does not need to be that way. The Bible tells us to mourn with those who mourn and to be transformed by renewing our minds. Jesus told us that the meek, poor in spirit, and peacemakers would be blessed.
We live in a fallen world full of evil things. That injustice exists should not be a surprise to us. Our assumption should not be that things are good and fair, but that they are unjust and full of despair.
When we hear a person or people crying for justice our response should not be to ask them to prove their injustices. We should be a neighbor full of love and respect and grace and mercy.
We do not need to make the choice between supporting riots or condemning the cry for justice. We do not have to choose between supporting officers who sacrifice so much to protect our communities and supporting families and communities who lost a son. We do not need to be afraid of mourning with the mom who cannot feed her family on her own and condoning welfare fraud.
Instead of having to choose between those things, we should choose to support justice. Mourn with those who mourn, rejoice with those who rejoice, and live in harmony with everyone around us.
Instead of judging, we need to seek to understand and bring unity and peace.
As Christian Hip-hop artist Propaganda wrote for the Washington Post, “What ‘I understand’ says is that your experience is just as valid as mine. That unity is not requiring uniformity. Saying ‘I understand’ suggests that your dignity is more important than me being right.”
The night before Dr. King was shot down by an assassin, he gave this speech.
May we remember his words today and remember it was the teachings and sacrifice of Jesus that inspired him to give up so much for the sake of others. And may we find ways in our own lives to promote justice, peace, and mercy.