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Letter from Birmingham City Jail: What would King say today?

Acting in Faith  |  By Victoria Greene, Apr 15, 2015
Letter from Birmingham City Jail cover from the original 1963 AFSC edition

Letter from Birmingham City Jail cover from the original 1963 AFSC edition

Photo: AFSC / AFSC

Note: AFSC published Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. in May, 1963. King wrote the letter on April 16, 1963 in response to an open, published letter from white clergy asking him to slow down, reproaching him on his methods and actions. The letter is a powerful call to action and an articulation of King's philosophy at the time.You can learn more about AFSC's relationship with King by reading this web post.

I asked Victoria Greene, executive director of the EMIR Healing Center, which offers support to families of murder victims, to write a reflection piece on the letter. She wrote about her first encounter with the letter and how it changed her relationship with King. - Lucy

The sixties were exciting times with the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, the Black Power movement, and community mobilization. The fight against racial and economic injustice was in the air. There were community meetings, church meetings, street meetings, everyone was organizing around the eradication of racism.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in India

I will never forget when Stokely Carmichael came to speak at the Church of the Advocate. There were hundreds of people raising their fists, screaming “Black Power, Black Power,” and I was one of them. I was conflicted about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent philosophy. It was difficult for me to accept asking oppressed people to be beaten and humiliated and just turn the other cheek. How much abuse and humiliation are we supposed to take?

I had respect for Martin Luther King, Jr. I did not understand him. I favored Malcolm X whose message, “By any means necessary,” came from a position of power.

Fifteen years later I discovered a Martin Luther King, Jr. I did not know. I attended a discussion group on race and was introduced to King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. In this letter, King was responding to white religious leaders who did not approve of his demonstration in Birmingham.

King gave these religious leaders a well-deserved tongue lashing. He talked about 340 years of segregation, lynching, beatings and “nigger” used as a name for black people. He talked about black men being called "boy" all of their adult lives. The horrendous acts of racism were laid bare for these leaders to see.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in India with Coretta Scott King

King asked, “Where is the sacrificial spirit of the early Christians?” Jesus was an instrument for love. He questioned the morality of white moderates, “Could it be that white moderates are more devoted to order than justice?”

He reminded them that “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

King talked about the “appalling silence of good people” and how evil spreads because good people stand by and do nothing.

This letter showed me a revolutionary side of King that I needed to see.

This letter was written in 1963. Fifty two years later we are still dealing with racial and economic injustice and police violence against black men. What would Martin Luther King, Jr. say if he were alive today?

I am encouraged that there is an undoing racism group within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Green Street Meeting, of which I am a member, has an undoing racism group that meets every second Sunday. Race is a difficult topic to talk about, but talk about it we must. In Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter he talks about how constructive tension is necessary for growth. As we take this dificult journey, we must expect tension and embrace it in order to grow. There will be no peace, no order until there is justice for all. The revolutionary King speaks to us from the grave, hopefully this time we will listen.

About the Author

Victoria Greene has led support groups for families who have experienced homicide for the last eight years. She has developed programs for and led workshops with young people in high school about grief and trauma. She worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in the Philadelphia Prison system for 20 years. During this time she facilitated one-on-one counseling and group counseling.

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan works with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Christina is the Friends Relations Fellow this year who works closely with Lucy. She was born and raised in London, England and has a background in copywriting. Christina currently lives in the Wissahickon section of Philadelphia.