MLKIn the spring of 1963 eight white clergymen in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote an open letter with a thinly veiled reference to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an “outsider” provoking their community. This was the occasion of the historic “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which King wrote in reply fifty years ago. It was smuggled from the jail, in bits and pieces written in the margins of newspaper print and on scraps of paper, which were then pieced together.

The Letter went on to become perhaps the single most important document of the Civil Rights era, and continues to be studied today. But how should we respond to the letter, since no formal response was formulated to the letter in 50 years?

One of the first ways I think we can respond to the letter is to [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]celebrate the progress [/highlight]since the 1960s.

Don’t worry, we’ll talk about how the job isn’t done in coming points, but first, we should celebrate how far we’ve come. Was the Civil Rights Movement a success? Well, in many ways the answer is a resounding: “yes.” Especially so if we ask it in a slightly different way: “Was King successful?” I can think of at least 5 ways Martin Luther King Jr. succeeded even in his life so cut short by assassination:

[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]1) Legal Success[/highlight]

On face value there are some laws that were changed as a direct result of King’s leadership and lawmakers in Washington responding to the national outcry for change. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were huge successes and enabled the civil rights movement to enact nationwide change. The day of “mind your own business” was over. As King said in his letter: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]2) Public Opinion Success[/highlight]

The WAY that King led had a huge effect as well. King wasn’t just the “leader of the Civil Rights Movement” he was a leader many American began to respect for just being a great man. I’ll go a step further and say that in a way King helped America become America. Before this, our national identity was a bit less cohesive. Talk all you want about “states rights” but when the state wants the right to segregate people based on color America should overrule that–(I’m putting on my Federalist Papers fan hat right now). As a comparison, I would say that I think the rights of the unborn shouldn’t be relegated to a “states rights” issue, so that some states kill and others don’t. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere indeed.

King and his movement helped shape the view most Americans have of African-Americans. There’s a reason that many men and women who don’t share King’s race find in him a leader that they emulate. As a leader who led the way he led, with courage and deep skill, the opinion of those unaffected directly by segregation changed radically. We decry the “political correctness” that has frozen debate, but we forget the kinds of things that were still being said in the 60s. At least the movement has had the success of exposing racist talk as unacceptable.

Perhaps the most telling sign of public opinion success is how we see “little black boys and girls… holding hands with little white boys and girls” all the time… and it is not out of the ordinary. Our children play together, worship together, and study together. There is still work to be done–but so much progress has been made on this front. Plainly, racism has lost most of the battles since 1960, and we have King to thank for much of that.

[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]3) Leadership & Politics Success[/highlight]

While there have not been as many successes in education and economics as a whole as we would like–there is a sense that King’s leadership resulted in a raised ceiling for black leaders. Throughout our system of government we find black leaders who are elected to office, and now even the Presidency is not out of reach for an African-American child as they see we already have a minority in office (what a radical change from 50 years ago!). Likewise, Ricky Rubio, one of the front-runners in the Republican nomination speculation is hispanic. The ceiling has been lifted on minorities leading us. Some speculate that King himself may have been elected president if not assassinated. That’s an interesting thought-exercise. I don’t believe that would have happened. However, a Carter-King run off might have been a fascinating thing to watch!

I wonder if we forget how feared King was by the great majority of white America (and in fact how divisive a person he still is to many, for reasons I can’t quite comprehend myself). He speaks of the “white moderate” in his letter from Birmingham Jail, saying: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s 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; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'”

[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]4) Non-Violent Success[/highlight]

Another way in which King was successful was in advancing the notion of non-violent protest. With his insistance on non-violence we had a revolution, but a quite bloodless one. Or, at least, the oppressor race didn’t bleed much. It was an honor for me to be at a recent event in Birmingham, Alabama, and to hear from three leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference including Dorothy Cotton & John Lewis. Mrs. Cotton shared about the intensive training their protesters received, to prepare them to “receive blows and not return them” and to respond to humiliation and force with peace and humility. We talk about how progressive the Civil Rights Movement was but one of King’s successes was holding off the “frightening racial nightmare” that would occur if change did not come.

While he speaks much about the White Moderate in his letter, King also speaks about the “Negro Nationalist.” His letter states: “The other force is one of bitterness and hatred… Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil.’ I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the ‘do nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.”

The great success of this non-violence is interesting to me, especially in light of the words from President Obama when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize. I say all this notwithstanding the fact that so many think that award undeserved for lack of a track record (including Obama himself, who said: “To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize.”) Likewise, Obama’s reign has been a quite bloody one since then, even if few know about it.

In his award speech, Obama commented on King’s philosophy of non-violence:

“I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

Some might say that’s a pretty big “but” in there. I read this to say: a) King’s work with non-violence was successful, BUT b) there are different rules for heads of state. I’m glad Obama pointed out the irony (or surely reporters would have for him) especially since the Nobel Peace Prize recipient had so recently become the head of the world’s largest employer, the US Military.

In retrospect I think it a good thing that King was so successful in non-violence that his successor of sorts had to reference, with some amount of ambivalence, that he was not living up to King’s example, even if he was walking in steps King’s work made possible.

There are other areas of success for King’s work, but those are a few I’d like to highlight as I celebrate the success. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]What are some of the successes of King and the Civil Rights Movement that I didn’t mention that you’d highlight?[/highlight] [divider type=”simple”]

Links to the “Five Ways to Respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail” Series:


Celebrate the Progress

Confess the Sins

Continue the Struggle

Fight the New Fights

Be Ever Vigilant


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