Prelude to Letter From a Birmingham Jail

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Prelude to “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

One of MLK Jr.’s famous documents is “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He was arrested April 12, 1963, on Good Friday, for violating an anti-protest order and held in solitary confinement. Six white clergy previously wrote a public letter to MLK Jr. urging “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense” dealing with racial problems in Alabama. The clergy called the demonstrations unwise and untimely and implied that outside agitators, namely MLK Jr., have stirred up the local “Negro citizens.”

You can read the clergy letter here.

These are the eight white clergy who signed the letter:

CCJ Carpenter, Bishop of Alabama – Age 64 at the time of the letter, previously directed a parochial school to be integrated (1951) yet later (1965) consecrated a ceremonial mace emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag at a special chapel service at Sewanee college to celebrate Jefferson Davis' birthday. The mace was consecrated by bishop Carpenter to the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Joseph A. Durrick, Auxiliary Bishop – A young (40) Roman Catholic bishop and civil rights advocate who opposed the Vietnam War and the death penalty. He directed efforts of ecumenical cooperation with Protestant and Jewish communities. Based on criticism from MLK Jr. and guided by Vatican II, he became a strong voice for civil rights. Nicknamed “the happy priest” for his image of an amiable country vicar.

Rabbi Milton Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham Alabama - Grafman opposed racial segregation, even though he disagreed with King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement over tactics and timing. In 1955, Grafman refused to speak at a religious emphasis week at the University of Mississippi after the Mississippi state legislature revoked an invitation to a minister who had made favorable comments about the NAACP. In 1961, Grafman spoke out publicly in opposition to the City of Birmingham’s decision to close all the public parks, golf courses, and swimming pools rather than integrate them. On September 19, 1963, (four days after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing) Grafman, while saying the Kaddish at Rosh Hashanah services, said: "Let us bow our heads in silence. In memory of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, James Robinson, Virgil Ware wantonly killed, insanely slain, brutally murdered, whose deaths we mourn, whose families we would comfort and the shame of whose murders we would and we must have our city [Birmingham] atone."

Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church - Bishop Paul Hardin presided over the Council of Methodist Bishops during the 1960s and started the process of integrating the denomination. Hardin served as pastor for the First Methodist Church of Birmingham throughout the early 1960s and remembers welcoming black attendees while excluding the White Citizen's Council against the wishes of his congregation. He used humor and personal conviction to oppose Governor George Wallace's segregationist stance and push white and black pastors past their reservations about working together. His commitment to interracial cooperation stemmed from his support of the reunification of the southern and northern Methodists in 1939 and from his father's early support for integration. He feels his life work contrasts with Martin Luther King's criticism of him and other progressive ministers in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Bishop Nolan Harmon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church – 71 at the time of the letter In June 1963, Bishop Harmon spoke out after segregationist Governor George Wallace attempted to block the enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama, also known as the "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door." Bishop Harmon read a public protest of Wallace's actions during an Annual Conference, calling them a "moral mistake" and adding that "the sovereignty of the United States [...] has been exerted to see that fundamental human rights are maintained in our state universities and state schools."

George Murray, Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama - George M. Murray was the youngest (34) of the eight Alabama clergymen who wrote "A Call for Unity." During the Civil Rights Movement Murray and his first wife, Elizabeth Malcolm Murray, decided that they both wanted to be active in the calling for greater equality and human rights. They were often criticized for being too involved or not involved enough.

Edward Rampage, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States - During the height of the civil rights tensions in Birmingham, Alabama, pressure from segregationists within his own congregation convinced Ramage to leave his longtime pastorate and pursue a ministry elsewhere.

Earl Stallings, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama - Stallings was the only clergy whom King praised by name in his letter, given that Stallings had opened the doors of his church to black worshipers. This same action angered members of his white congregation. One of the blacks allowed in was the civil rights leader Andrew Young. As a result of his moderate stance, Stallings became a target of both conservative segregationists and liberal integrationists. Tension over the issue so divided the church that it eventually split over the issue in 1970.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail”

MLK Jr. addresses “Call for Unity” and “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense”

Outside agitator - I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Let the Courts decide - Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts.

Timing - My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was "well timed" according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never."

Breaking laws - You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all." Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an "I - it" relationship for the "I - thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.

Taking on the white moderate - I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." 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. Full text can be found here.

God bless you all,

Rev. Curtis Ehrgott