On April 12, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with 53 members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), launched the Birmingham Campaign— to put economic pressure on local merchants and government through a series of non-violent protests during the Easter shopping season.
Dr. King and protestors were arrested for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations. In response to their arrests, eight members of the local clergy issued a public statement that criticized the strategy as “untimely and unwise.”
They referred to Dr. King and the SCLC as “outsiders coming in” and igniting racial tensions in within their community. The eight clergymen urged “white and negro citizenry” to cease their protest and “observe principles of law and order and common sense,”
Dr. King was deeply upset by the clergy’s statement. Behind bars, with wet eyes and with a heavy heart, he wrote the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in the margins of the Birmingham News.
His open letter became one of the most poignant literary Commentarypieces of the 20th Century.
Dr. King did not understand why the clergymen were unable to see how racism and segregation conflicted with Christian principles.
“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” He asked
How could they be opposed to the SCLC’s campaign against injustice? Would their statement divide the Black church and its position on civil disobedience? How could he, Dr. King, be viewed as an outsider, when he marched alongside hundreds of brothers and sisters withstanding the same blatant hatred and racism both near and far?
Dr. King warned of mounting frustration with the status quo within the Black Community. He feared brewing tensions coupled with emergence of a strong Black Nationalist presence could give way to violence.
According to King, the “Negro Church” could exert a direct influence, not to mention duty, to keep violence from erupting.
“The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march,” he wrote.
He expressed his disappointment with the laxity of the church, which he believed had shirked its obligations to the Black Community, hiding behind the “security of stained-glass windows.”
On this King Day holiday, when so much calls out to be done, community members should take heed of Dr. King’s plea to unite and be bold enough to face the issues that divide us and find the resolve to move forward.
Kia Croom is a contributing writer for the Richmond Post.