Martin Luther King’s Good Friday 60 Years Ago

COMMENTARY: 1963’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ for all its legal and political significance, remains a profoundly religious text, a jailed pastor writing to fellow pastors.

Fred Shuttlesworth (left), Ralph David Abernathy (center), and Martin Luther King Jr. (right) march on Good Friday on April 12, 1963, in Birmingham. The men were later arrested, prompting King to write his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
Fred Shuttlesworth (left), Ralph David Abernathy (center), and Martin Luther King Jr. (right) march on Good Friday on April 12, 1963, in Birmingham. The men were later arrested, prompting King to write his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail." (photo: Courtesy photo / Birmingham Public Library Archive)

“Never before have I written so long a letter,” wrote Martin Luther King 60 years ago this Easter. “I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”


Good Friday in Jail

In April 1963, King went to Alabama to lead nonviolent action in one of America’s most fiercely segregated cities. He was arrested — protesting without a “permit” — in Birmingham on Good Friday and thrown in the city jail. He spent that Easter writing amid the harsh conditions of the jail rather than preaching in his pulpit.

On its 60th anniversary it remains a precious testament of pastoral witness, written by a pastor oppressed by an unjust regime to other pastors who took issue with King’s involvement, tactics and timetable.

The nearly 7,000 words of the Letter From Birmingham Jail form the most important written document of the civil rights movement, one of the most important texts in American political history, and were of global importance in articulating why unjust laws are laws that call for civil disobedience.


Augustine and Aquinas on Law

The heart of the letter is King’s drawing upon the Catholic tradition of law.

“There are two types of laws: just and unjust,” King wrote. “I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

Civil disobedience, King argued, does not lead to anarchy as his critics claimed, but to a deeper respect for justice, which is supposed to be the purpose of law.

“What is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?” King wrote:

“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. 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. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”


A Preacher in Prison

Yet King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, for all its legal and political import, remains a religious text, a jailed pastor writing to fellow pastors, some of whom have taken the side of his jailers. It is a profoundly biblical text, as one would expect from a Baptist preacher, and a profoundly ecclesial one, dealing with corruption and compromised witness in the Christian Church.

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” wrote King to Christian clergymen who object to his presence, placing himself in the biblical prophetic tradition:

“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, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”

That the last of the prophets, John the Baptist, was clapped into prison by Herod did not need mentioning. King then continued with some of his most famous words.

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

King rejected the Alabama clergy’s argument that it would be better to wait for a more convenient time:

“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”

King appealed to the Bible, claiming that “civil disobedience” has its roots “sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.”

Such disobedience “was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”


A Failure of the Church

Confessing his disappointment with anemic support from the “white moderate,” King laments that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Weak political allies do not frustrate King as much as other Christian leaders. He acknowledges that he has support, and even mentions the desegregation of a Catholic institution, Spring Hill College in Alabama. But his disappointment with his fellow clergy is deep.

“You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme,” King writes, in a forthright challenge to the Church:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you

Was not Amos an extremist for justice: Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God. 

And John Bunyan: I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.

And Abraham Lincoln: This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.

And Thomas Jefferson: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

With Good Friday clearly on his mind, King concludes:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified.
We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime — the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

King’s disappointment with the witness of the church is painful. 

“I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen. … In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”

“There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Thermostat or thermometer? The choice before the Church remains in every age, from the beginning. 

King concludes by expressing to his fellow pastors that he wishes to meet them one day “not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”

The Christian Church has plenty of Scripture to read in these days, from St. John’s passion narrative on Good Friday to the many Old Testament readings at the Easter Vigil. Yet in these days a contemporary “Scripture” might also find a place in quiet hours at home — the prophetic cry from the Birmingham Jail.