Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929 – 1968
Of all the speeches and letters, editorials and interviews that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and shared with us during his lifetime, none is more meaningful for me than his 1963 ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail’. Even as he was confined in jail, and restricted in activity and communication, Reverend King was able to write with such positive clarity about his work, that even today this letter is remarkable in its ability to inspire.
What makes it such an extraordinary message?
Perhaps it is continued relevance. He reminds us of “the interrelatedness of all communities and states” and that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Perhaps it is the thoroughness of the dialogue as he talks about “four basic steps” to nonviolent campaigns or the “creative tension” that is a part of the process.
And then, perhaps it is the passion that exudes from each line as Reverend King presents German-American theologian, Paul Tillich’s and Saint Thomas Aquinas’s explanations of just versus unjust and sin versus morality.
There is no doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the power of the pen and expressed himself with a flourish that most will never enjoy. But I believe what makes this letter so special is that it gives a real face to a real situation. He devotes many lines to relating stories of real people experiencing real moments in life that change them, hurt them, restrict their futures. In these stories, these quick vignettes, we are reminded that none of what he relates are experiences we want for ourselves or our children. We are reminded that any group that inflicts on another some code that is not binding on itself is not just. And we are reminded that “time is neutral”. In fact, it’s how we use time, either destructively or constructively, that matters.
This year, it is 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was so abruptly taken from us. As we celebrate the birthday of this amazing American, let us all be reminded that the work he moved forward is still in progress. That we must use our time constructively to achieve the goals of inclusion and justice. That we must be intentional in our actions toward those goals. That we each can make a difference…and we must.
Any less fervor and action on our part truly betrays our personal value of all people in an inclusive society.