This weekend as we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We often recall his soaring speeches, taking us to new heights as we shared his dream.
However, we should also celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. the social activist, who was arrested some 30 times.
From his first arrest in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to his last arrest in1965, for demonstrating without a permit in Selma. Dr. King model the social activism of Jesus – who advocated for the poor, looked after the widow, orphan and foreigner, in addition to standing up for all who found themselves on the margins of life.
Jesus was arrested for His activism, and so was Dr. King.
In April of 1963, Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham for violating an Alabama judge’s ruling against holding protests and demonstrations.
On the day of his arrest, a group of concerned white Birmingham clergy issued a letter asking three things from Dr. King and his followers:
1.Dr. King and followers should go home. They were not from Birmingham, and therefore have no right to interfere with their affairs.
2. The clergy thought the demands of King and his followers were too grand. Therefore, the white clergy asked the black citizens of Birmingham for more time for negotiations with the local white power structure.
3.The clergy were dismayed that Dr. King and his fowlers were willing violate the law, by holding demonstrations against a judge’s order.
While in jail, Dr. King wrote back to the concerned white Birmingham clergy. His response simply known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, is a remarkable primer on the principals of social activism, and a treatise on why there is no shame in being arrested for justice.
Using the language of the early Christian Theologian, St. Augustine and Scripture, Dr. King’s responses can inspire us to greater activism.
Clergy: Dr. King and followers should go home. They were not from Birmingham, and therefore have no right to interfere with their affairs.
King: I am in Birmingham because injustice is here …I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider …
Clergy: The clergy thought the demands of King and his followers were too grand. Therefore, the white clergy asked the black citizens of Birmingham for more time for negotiations with the local white power structure.
King: We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
Clergy: King was easily willing to violate the law by holding demonstrations against a judge’s orders.
King: One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? 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 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 …
This weekend of celebration and commemorations reminds us that King like Jesus, was and is a radical revolutionary, demanding systematic change.
If we are to be true disciples of Jesus, we also must be radical revolutionaries, willing not only to say provocative yet prophetic things, but to put our bodies on the line, in volunteerism, in activism and sometimes in civil dissent. This means we must be willing to be arrested for justice.
Jesus was arrested for justice, and so was King. Hopefully, you and I will be willing be arrested for justice as well.
Source material for this blog is from: Letter from Birmingham Jail
Copyright © 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. All rights reserved. Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community. Leah Gunning Francis, Chalice Press, 2015.