Bending Toward Justice

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MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

April 9, 2019

In that tumultuous spring and summer before the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, many Americans struggled with the merits of protest and civil disruption. Even if they were sympathetic to the growing desire to end racial segregation and work toward equality, some questioned the tactics of taking that message to the streets.

A cluster of clergymen publicly questioned civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s protest that resulted in his arrest and jailing in Birmingham, Al, over Easter, 1963. They insisted change should come through the courts and negotiations with local leaders, rather than “confrontational” action.

King, stuck behind bars with other leaders including Revs. Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, used whatever paper was at his disposal to scribble a reply to those who condemned their tactics. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” eloquently and comprehensively laid out the necessity and merits of his “non-violent protest campaign.”

King repelled charges he was an “outsider” stirring up trouble in Alabama by noting that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and he rejected the notion that it was better to wait for change as “wait has almost always meant ‘never’”.

The open letter was written on April 16, 1963. It is now a cornerstone of civil rights orthodoxy and in 2019 is as relevant, if not more so, than at any time in the last fifty-six years.

We are witnessing growing division and injustice locally, nationally and globally. It is appropriate to raise our voices to note the discord; to call for action and unity without resorting to violence or assisting the growing schisms in some parts of our community and political process.

Appropriately, in a celebration of the wonder of our Union, George Washington’s farewell address is read on the floor of the Senate annually. For me, King’s open letter from the Birmingham jail is undoubtedly part of the same grand legacy of American democracy.

So, it is with a sense of purpose, pride, and celebration that I arranged for three Democrats, including myself, and three Republican Senators to read Dr. King’s profound letter on the floor today, April 9, 2019 – less than a week after commemorating MLK’s April 4, 1968 assassination and a few days before the anniversary of the King writing the document that explained “why we can’t wait.”

His steady leadership came at one of the most fractious times in our history. We are again negotiating the perils of divisiveness, but we have history to draw on. Hopefully, we can recognize the wisdom of King and his campaign—an unwavering commitment to securing justice.

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