Honoring Dr. King: The Enduring Relevance of ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’
On Sunday, January 16, 2022, I, along with more than 150 other people, attended this Zoom MLK event, sponsored by Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) and Repair the World. As an ally and friend of the Jewish community, I was excited about both the topic and the agenda planned: a two-hour study of this seminal letter written by Dr. King on April 12, 1963, at a critical point in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
The event promised “Performances by Baltimore School for the Arts and a panel discussion with Tre’ Murphy, Tara Huffman, and Taylor Branch.” Tre’ Murphy has been a community organizer at the local, state, and federal levels for more than a decade and currently serves as Deputy Director of Community Organizing for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Tara Huffman is both a minister and a lawyer with extensive experience in criminal justice, juvenile justice, and civil rights at all government levels. She has also been a leader at OSI-Baltimore, for which she was recently honored by JUFJ. Taylor Branch is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.
The Agenda was as follows: Reading of Part 1 of the Letter; Breakout Discussions; Panel Discussion Part 1; Reading of Part 2 of the Letter; Panel Discussion Part 2.
For more details about the event, with photos, please read The Baltimore Fishbowl article by Rudy Malcom, at https://baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/mlks-letter-from-birmingham-jail-remains-relevant-baltimore-jewish-social-justice-groups-contend/
Part 1 of the Letter
I reacted most to the following points: (1) The false argument that outside agitators were to blame for the civil rights demonstrations in the South. It is an argument that is still being made in response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country. Dr. King reproved this argument, saying that no one living in the U.S. is an outsider. (2) The false argument that the demonstrations were untimely. Again, this argument is still being made, not just in response to 21st century civil rights demonstrations, but also in response to the unimaginable rise in school shootings and other acts of violence occurring against a host of communities, including a Jewish synagogue in Texas the day before this event. Dr. King’s response in 1963 is as true now as it was then: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” (3) Dr. King’s strategy for nonviolent protest: Learn the facts; Negotiate with the opposing side, with the expectation of specific outcomes to be acted upon; Self-purification by the demonstrators, to prepare themselves to respond nonviolently to any violence (physical, mental, or spiritual) that might be perpetrated against them; and Direct Action if negotiations fail.
I chose to join a discussion group comprised of Jews of Color and People of Color (non-Jews). Our group was diverse in age, background, and responses to the first part of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. We all agreed that racism is still real and that we still have so much work to do. My strongest reaction, shared with the group, was validation of my childhood experiences, growing up in the 1960s—I experienced the effects of inequality in Baltimore, and I was a witness to that era of the Civil Rights Movement, both locally and nationally. Two people, one from my generation and one slightly older, also spoke about their experience of not being allowed to go to certain places, a lesson Dr. King had to teach his own children. The older respondent had grown up in an outwardly more open, integrated community, never hearing this lesson, but wondering if their parents harbored unspoken fear for their safety. The other respondent recalled that they had actually been a “Rosa Parks”—sitting in the “white” section of a bus as a child. The youngest member of our group felt most strongly about the “outside agitator” argument.
Panel Discussion, Part 1
The moderator asked the panel for their reactions to the letter and to talk about how White people can better support the Black community.
Tre’ Murphy, responding in the context of community organizing, began by reiterating that Dr. King’s letter is as relevant now as it was then—if you fix the most marginalized people, then everybody wins. Supporting “Justice” is okay, but if the injustices that are called out and protested against don’t affect you personally, your “support” for justice means little. Murphy also considered King’s statements demanding full citizenship for Black people: You need to ask, what is full citizenship; what is the acceptable quality of life for a citizen or community member?
Pastor Tara Huffman’s initial reaction was “I am ‘buked,” a reference to a spiritual well known in the Black community. The letter caused her to reflect, as a social justice leader, on which organizations and which tactics are okay to further the cause? She concluded, “Do what you can and do it well, but don’t be a stumbling block” in the fight for justice.
Taylor Branch saw the critical question in the letter as, how do you move communities that don’t want to move? If it took 20,000 soldiers to get James Meredith into the white college he’d enrolled in, then we need to be bigger risk takers. Branch also noted that the Letter itself changed nothing—it did not encourage anyone to join the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, it served as the midpoint of the Movement, a low point between the two most active parts of the Movement. It was the Children’s Marches in the South, with police violently hosing down the marchers, to rip the gates open. His advice to White people was to be yourself with both White and Black people—you can’t be supportive of Black people and never raise the issue of injustice with Whites.
Part 2 of the Letter
I agreed most strongly with these concepts: (1) Just Laws, which uplift the whole community or society, vs. Unjust Laws, which degrade segments of the community or society. (2) Progress is not inevitable. Time works for those in power and is used better by them to maintain the status quo. Dr. King included in this inditement: that the 20th century churches that hide behind stained glass windows will be the downfall of church and religion. (3) The police keeping order/preventing violence was praised by the media, but with no mention of how the protestors and prisoners were treated, belying their so-called nonviolence. Today, the police are even more blatant in their violent treatment of Black people.
Panel Discussion, Part 2
The moderator asked the Panel to speak about how Dr. King was able to speak to both spiritual and secular readers of his letter at the same time.
Taylor Branch responded that Dr. King always spoke with one foot in the Constitution and the other in Scripture. Both concepts are rooted in the ideals of the United States. Pastor Huffman called King’s appeal to the Spirit, Mind, and Soul masterful and strategic. He recognized that multiple things can be true at the same time, saying that “I can’t be so heavenly minded that I fail to see earthly need.” Tre’ Murphy spoke to the need for Courage: that past progress gained can never be a substitute for continuing to make progress, and that changing Hearts and Minds is necessary if we want to build a new Majority that values equality and equal quality of life.
As we continue this centuries-old struggle for Civil Rights, Equality, and Equal Quality of Life, I am tired, yet determined to press on.