Guest Commentary

Hope and frustration: Martin Luther King’s Birmingham jail letter speaks to us today

Courtney Lewis
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MLK Day 2019

This year marks the 33rd national observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Monday would be his 90th birthday.

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As we celebrate what would’ve been the 90th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m pausing to reflect on one of Dr. King’s writings that has lived in my head for nearly three decades, and seems to grow more relevant every year: “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

It of course was written after he was arrested for his leadership in the Birmingham boycotts for desegregation. The letter is a response to white church leaders criticizing King’s methods and calling him an outsider to Birmingham.

“Letter to a Birmingham Jail” has always left me with a feeling of hope and frustration. The hope comes from the soaring tone of Dr. King’s writing. The timelessness of his phrase “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is followed immediately by the sentence “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny.” While the first phrase is often quoted, it’s the latter that’s echoed in my mind since college.

The “inescapable network of mutuality” is a powerful thing to consider. It creates neighborhoods, communities, towns and cities, the fellowship that moves us forward into the best parts of humanity.

Recently someone asked me what the word “community” means to me, and Dr. King’s phrase was the first thing that came to mind. I said I believe it means we lift each other up so we can all rise as a city. That we are tied together both when it comes to the good and the bad. To me that network means If we are not working to lift each other up, then we are simply doing our part to keep our fellow humans oppressed and struggling. It is a call to live up to our responsibility as citizens of our communities.

The frustration comes from another major point Dr. King discusses in the letter: the “do-nothingism” of the complacent. He was referring directly to many of his fellow clergymen because of their complacency.

As a child growing up in a non-religious household, I naively assumed that all people of religion, particularly Christians, automatically supported Dr. King’s activism because it was the right thing to do. It was only when my middle school social studies classes began studying “Letter” that I realized the harsh truth that these churches not only didn’t support Dr. King, but they called his activities “unwise and untimely.” He responded by telling them “shallow misunderstanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” That’s one of those sentences that forces you to take a long look in the mirror and figure out if you are either of those kind of persons.

I’ve tried to live my life as neither of those. My faith is strong, my church progressive, my own devotion to following the teachings of Jesus grows each year. But if I’m not doing, if I’m not acting to lift my community up, then I’m falling into the darkness of complacency. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” Dr. King also writes.

If we aren’t actively working to empower each other, then we are working against our own best interests.