In April 1963, King was jailed for leading a march without a permit to protest segregated businesses in Birmingham, Alabama. King was also leading a boycott of white-owned stores to protest segregation. On April 12, eight moderate white Christian and Jewish clergymen wrote a statement in The Birmingham News opposing King, the march, and the boycott. They called King an “outsider,” and the march and boycott “extreme,” “unwise and untimely.” The clergymen supported integration, but asked black citizens of Birmingham to wait for it from the courts. In jail, King read the statement. On April 16, he wrote a response, beginning on the margins of the newspaper. King’s letter was printed by newspapers, magazines, and in his book, Why We Can’t Wait, in 1964. The letter is primarily concerned with orthopraxy – how Christians are to behave more than what Christians are to believe – but it does beg questions of orthodoxy. It may have been printed more than anything else King wrote.
King wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail to “Fellow Clergymen” and “Christian and Jewish brothers,” with whom he shared “two honest confessions.” First, King confessed disappointment with white moderates who loved order more than justice, accepted the myth of time, and rejected nonviolent direct action as extreme. Second, King confessed disappointment with the many white church leaders who either actively opposed integration or passively supported segregation. Finally, King gave thanks for the few white church leaders who actively supported integration.
First, King confessed disappointment with white moderates. King was disappointed that white moderates loved order more than justice. He wrote:
The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.
King countered that order exists to establish justice and that the establishment of justice requires the exposure of injustice, and with it, tension between those who have oppressed and those who have been oppressed.
King was disappointed that white moderates accepted the myth of time: the belief that social progress comes inevitably with the passing of time. King countered that time can be used constructively or destructively, and that social progress comes not inevitably with the passing of time, but when people of good will work with God and use time creatively.
And King was disappointed that white moderates rejected nonviolent direct action as extreme; however, upon reflection, King realized that “the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for…injustice, or will we be extremists for…justice?” King concluded:
“After all, maybe the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
Second, King confessed disappointment with the white church and many of its leaders. King confessed his disappointment with the white church not as “a negative critic who can always find something wrong with the church” but as “a minister of the gospel, who loves the church.” King was disappointed that many white church leaders either actively opposed integration or passively supported segregation. King claimed that some white church leaders did not support integration because they believed it was a “social issue” with which the gospel was not concerned, and that other white church leaders did not support integration because they loved security and feared nonconformity. He wrote:
I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some have been…opponents…others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the…security of the stained-glass windows.
King recounted beholding white church buildings and asking himself, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? King contrasted the white church to the early church and warned that if the white church was not willing to suffer like the early church, then it risked being judged by God and dismissed by people whose disappointment with the church was rising to disgust.
Finally, King gave thanks for the few white church leaders who rejected love of security and fear of nonconformity, were willing to suffer, and actively supported integration, joining the “struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice.” He wrote:
Some [white church leaders] have broken loose from the…chains of conformity and joined us…in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets…with us…they have gone to jail with us. Some have been kicked out of their churches, and lost support of their bishops and fellow ministers.
King claimed that these white church leaders were a witness to the true meaning of the gospel, and that they gave him hope.
King’s letter is still relevant today, fifty-nine years after it was written by a thirty-four-year-old King. The Civil Rights Movement may have ended de jure segregation, but we are still in a struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, as evidenced by black / white wealth and income gaps:
2014 data shows that the average black household has about 60% of the income and about 10% of the wealth of the average white household.
King’s two honest confessions of disappointment with white moderates and the white church warrant honest reflection among white people generally and white Christians specifically.
With King, we should behold white church buildings and we should ask ourselves:
“What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?”
We should ask ourselves: Have we loved “order” more than justice? Have we accepted the myth of time? Have we been extremists for injustice or extremists for justice? Have we believed justice is a “social issue” with which the gospel is not concerned? Have we loved security and feared nonconformity?
In 1949, Howard Thurman wrote:
“Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak.”
We should reflect on both King’s questions and Thurman’s statement.
We should heed King’s warning to the white church. We should ask ourselves: Are we willing to suffer like the early church? Are we at risk of being judged by God and dismissed by people whose disappointment with the church is turning to disgust?
And we should take hope from the white church leaders who gave hope to King. May we reject love of security and fear of nonconformity, be willing to suffer, and join the struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice. May we – as creative extremists for love and justice — be a witness to the true meaning of the gospel.
After all, maybe the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
“Demographic Trends and Economic Well-Being,” Pew Research Center, June 27, 2016. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2016/06/27/1-demographic-trends-and-economic-well-being/
King, Martin Luther, Jr. I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. Edited by James M Washington. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986.
Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.