Every year in my Ethics class I assign “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, while under arrest for parading without a permit, he wrote this response to criticisms of him by other southern clergymen.
After the assignment is read, students’ responses vary. Most are impressed. One or two are not. Some are quite moved, almost shocked, saying things like, “I had no idea he was such an educated man and eloquent writer!” “Every American should read this.” “If we all had his intelligence and attitudes this world would be a better place.” Many Americans have agreed with that assessment – which is part of why there is a holiday in his honor.
To me, two things stand out about Martin King — the quality of his mind, and his ability to practice his philosophy in public life so deliberately and effectively.
First, he was well educated and very thoughtful. He did not just pass lots of courses to get his degrees. He worked to understand American history and to wrestle with ethics, philosophy, and theology in the context of that history. He frequently alluded to or quoted great thinkers, writers, or activists, not to show off, but because he had absorbed and critiqued the heart of their work and it meant a lot to him.
In the letter from jail, without access to books or references, he quoted or used as examples an array of sources including Supreme Court Justices, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, Jesus, Paul Tillich, Thomas Jefferson, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Augustine. He refers to events in US history, the history of the Nazi era, and particulars of then-current events in the US and in Alabama. This was very characteristic of his way of thinking and speaking.
Second, having come to fundamental conclusions about what is true and what is valuable, he lived those convictions vigorously, consistently, and with profound effect on his time and his nation. So, what kinds of things did he say?
“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.”
His concern with uplifting human personality was part of the foundation of his life. The “Personalist” philosophy he studied at Boston University gave him grounding for belief in the dignity and worth of all human beings. This philosophy strongly contradicted the materialism and atheism that gave the world so much grief in the 20th Century. It enabled him to be adamant both in his determination to see changes come, and in his determination to pursue those changes without instigating violence.
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns…so I am compelled.”
“…when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Here are some of the “Ten Commandments” on a commitment card signed by volunteers with the Birmingham Movement.
1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
This is a rigorous moral standard. But it was not just theory; it was understood and widely practiced wherever King’s leadership was accepted. It illustrates why an annual holiday to remember his life and message can be a healthy thing for our society.
by Larry Harvey, published in Southwest Nebraska News, Jan 17, 2003