Opinion

1963 and 2021: Then and Now

Fifty-Eight years on

(Opinion by William House)

The date was April 16th of 1963, and Martin Luther King, Jr. sent out his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This iconic historical document was issued to his fellow clergymen as he languished under lock and key in the Birmingham City Jail. The letter provides historical context regarding the social and philosophical background leading to the birth and rise of the civil rights movement in the United States. However, merely calling it a historical document does not do justice to the social insights it provides. It is more of a living document, since fifty-eight years on, key observations made by Dr. King about racism in the U.S. continue to plague us.

Even though Dr. King’s letter was nominally issued to eight Birmingham clergymen, he spoke to an entire nation from his solitary confinement behind iron bars. He was initially called to Birmingham in early April of 1963 by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to protest the City’s segregation system. The desegregation campaign launched on April 3rd, and then expanded daily with lunch counter sit-ins, kneel-ins at churches, library sit-ins, and a march to register voters.

Tensions escalated, and on April 10th, the City obtained a State Circuit Court injunction against further protests. The protest movement correctly perceived this action as an unjust and unconstitutional use of legal power. Faced with a decision to comply or oppose the injunction, Dr. King determined that he could not “in all good conscience obey such an injunction.” His incarceration on Good Friday, April 12th, was the result of his decision to stand up for the civil rights of all Americans regardless of their race, and to seek for black Americans their rightful freedoms and liberties.

Against this backdrop, Martin Luther King sat alone and isolated in the Birmingham City Jail, and wrote his letter to address a published statement by eight Birmingham clergymen condemning the protests. His words still ring true today.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King methodically addresses the necessity of the protests in light of the existing conditions in Birmingham; conditions that supported segregation and denied black men and women their constitutional rights. He is clear in his response to the clergymen when he says, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.

Today, we often hear how we live in a post-racial society, so race is no longer a factor in determining a person’s opportunities in life. This type of thinking equates racial equality to eliminating the blatant but legalized racist and segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era. Jim Crow laws were enacted to marginalize African Americans, denying them access to jobs and education, and even denying them the right to vote. While removing unconstitutional laws is a necessary first step, it does not eliminate racism ingrained in our society.

We have watched for half a century as more subtle barriers, both legal and social, were erected to take the place of Jim Crow policy. In 2021, we find ourselves watching as polling places are shut down in neighborhoods dominated by people of color, voter registration requirements are made more onerous with an unstated goal of discouraging voting, and election maps are gerrymandered to thwart the rule of the majority. Not surprisingly, allegations of voter theft and voter fraud seem to arise only in communities dominated by large African American populations. White supremacists, aggrieved by their perceived loss of power, storm our Capitol Building, wreaking havoc and fomenting bloodshed in the Halls of Congress. But it is black men and women who are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by the police. These are not the hallmarks of a post-racial society, and we deceive ourselves if we think otherwise.

I am struck, in reading Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, more by what has not changed since 1963 than by what has changed. We do have people of color representing us in both state and federal legislatures, and yes, Obama was our first black President. But these facts do not mean we have left racism behind. Two insights from Dr. King’s letter stand out today as much as they did in 1963. The first is his archetype of the “white moderate,” and the second is his “disappointment” with the white church and its leadership.

Dr. King writes, “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” … “Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

Today in 2021, I observe few people of color expressing the idea that we live in a post-racial society. This worldview seems more closely tied to portions of white America, where it is easy to ignore racism and comfortably pretend it doesn’t exist. We are all human beings, and each of us seeks fulfillment through our lifestyles and commitments. In a world where the truth can be uncomfortable, it is easier for many to ignore or hide from reality than to accept it and seek equity and balance.

Ultimately, accepting and combating racism starts with an inward recognition of its existence. We cannot provide solutions to problems we don’t recognize. But recognition is only a first step that must be followed with action. Uncomfortable truths need addressing, and convictions must be coupled with action when necessary. If we choose to slip into denial, we only postpone the reckoning for another half-century. Dr. King’s archetype of the “white moderate” accurately characterizes those who choose not to acknowledge the issues. We should all be asking if we fit this description, and remember two quotes from Dr. King’s letter:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

One of the more striking sights from the January 6th, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was the confluence of Christianity, insurrection, and white supremacy. Confederate flags, Trump banners, American flags, and Jesus-saves signs mingled together in a chaotic array as a mob stormed the Capitol Building. But this unholy alliance between white supremacy and predominantly-white evangelical Christianity is not new. Dr. King wrote in his letter:

“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.

Fifty-eight years on, White Christian Nationalism is alive and well, perpetuating its ideas that a white theocracy is the ultimate goal for governance in America. Denunciation of these ideas by other mainstream religious institutions is more “cautious than courageous.” To be clear, mainstream Christianity’s failure to denounce radical Christian support of racism and white supremacy is a dereliction of responsibility and tacit approval of racial discrimination.

Institutional religion has historically been a tool of the state for maintaining power and directing the flow of wealth. Christian Nationalism takes up this banner and seeks to turn back the wheels of time, denying constitutional rights and freedoms to the “others” who don’t ascribe to their vision for the future. By intertwining themselves with white supremacists, they commit to pursuing a racially segregated future. Martin Luther King’s disappointment in the “white church” was as well-founded in 1963 as it is in 2021.

Much has changed between 1963 and 2021, but much remains the same, reminding us of the task at hand as we collectively and inescapably move towards an uncertain future. Time only moves forwards, and there is no proverbial return to the past. As both America and the world around us change, we should carefully consider the words of Dr. King and reflect on the type of future we desire for our children. Once we have reflected, we must then manifest our desires through peaceful action.


Celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King by participating in the West Linn Alliance Book/Film Discussion Group, where we will discuss the Letter from Birmingham Jail on February 25th, 2021.


Resources:

Letter From Birmingham Jail (By Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Spirituality, religion, and the fundamentalist heresy (By William House; DropStone on Medium)