I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: if you’re in the Philadelphia area this Martin Luther King Day weekend, come out to Eastern State Penitentiary for a reading and discussion of the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
This year we’ve got an all-star lineup of four historians from Temple University who each bring a unique perspective to the letter. Unfortunately, for each reading/discussion session you’ll only hear from one of us, but that’s part of the excitement of it, right? You don’t know who you’ll get!
Eastern State is an astonishing historic site, and the team there is doing great work (winning lots of awards!) in interpreting it for the public and raising questions that are directly relevant to today.
And that’s what the Letter from Birmingham Jail program is all about. It is participatory and relevant. Come prepared to offer your thoughts about how this letter matters now. If Dr. King was writing a letter from jail today, what would he say? If you wrote a letter, what would you say?
This isn’t an academic discussion about the past. It’s a morally charged exploration about what we can do now. Many people who have attended the event in the past have said they left feeling energized and inspired. And, the historian in me feels compelled to say, you’ll also learn something about the past!
In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.
In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.
This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.
It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.
50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.
We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.
In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.
Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.
King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:
The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.
Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.
Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.
The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.
Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.
Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.
Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.
With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.
This Martin Luther King Day weekend, come out to Eastern State Penitentiary for reading and discussion of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, a defining document of the civil rights movement.
Readings will take place throughout the day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. See the Eastern State site for details.
The great Dax Richardson will be voicing Dr. King. Temple’s Minju Bae and I will facilitate the discussions and provide historical context. Monday’s sessions will also feature readers from the community.
In past years, these readings and discussions have been powerful times of reflection and dialogue. I’ve been privileged to participate in this event during a whirlwind of change over the past few years. In 2015 and 2016, the black lives matter movement made the discussion of the letter feel extremely urgent. In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump and the palpable turn in the national mood away from attention to racial injustice, the letter took on a different hue. Who knows what this year will bring!
Whether you’re able to come to a reading or not, if you’ve never been to Eastern State, you should go! It is an astonishing historic site. In recent years Eastern State has won major national awards for its top-notch exhibits and programming. Their exhibit on mass incarceration is sobering and deeply relevant.
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. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
–Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963. Read the whole letter here.
If you’re in the Philadelphia area and looking for something educational and meaningful to commemorate the Martin Luther King holiday, come to Eastern State Penitentiary for a reading and discussion of Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. There are readings of the letter all weekend, with the great Dax Richardson voicing Dr. King. Monday’s readings will also feature readers from the community. Minju Bae and I will facilitate the discussions.
In past years, these readings and discussions have been powerful times of reflection and dialogue. The letter still resonates today because it’s ultimately not about Dr. King. It’s a call to action. Over half a century after it was written, it still provokes.
Whether you’re able to come to a reading or not, if you’ve never been to Eastern State, you should go! It is an astonishing historic site. While you’re there, check out the wonderful and eye-opening new exhibit on mass incarceration. Seriously folks, this place is doing good work.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a Thursday. On Sunday one of the flagship institutions of American evangelicalism, Wheaton College, hosted a community memorial service for the slain civil rights leader. News of the event spread, and some white evangelicals were not happy. Among these was Timothy LaHaye, who would become famous decades later as the co-author of the Left Behind book series. LaHaye’s letter to the president of Wheaton College is below.
Think of some of the questions this single document might raise:
Where did LaHaye get the information about the memorial service? (He seems to have enclosed some sort of article but it was not included in the archives)
What kinds of information did LaHaye rely on to understand the civil rights movement, and where did the “deaths of seventeen people” statistic come from? Was this a right-wing meme? How did it circulate in this pre-internet age? Did LaHaye blame Dr. King for all the violence that occurred at his protests?
Was LaHaye satisfied with the president’s reply? (There is no subsequent letter from LaHaye in the archive.) Did he continue to recommend Wheaton College to his congregation?
Did LaHaye change his views in later decades? As memory of the civil rights movement changed and it became impolitic to have such a negative view of Dr. King, did LaHaye adjust, or did he just become silent?
Did LaHaye ever write anything publicly about the civil rights movement, or about race more generally?
Did the blowback Wheaton received (this was only one of dozens of letters) affect its institutional behavior in subsequent years?
What does this reveal about the theological and racial climate of white evangelicalism in the late 1960s? Were LaHaye’s attitudes exceptional, or normal?
Studying history often involves asking one question after another. At times the questions radiate outward in dizzying complexity, and often the evidence is far more fragmentary than we would like. Primary sources like this one don’t speak for themselves. If I ask you, “What does this document mean?” you might come up with dozens of plausible answers. But perhaps the best answer would be, “I don’t know yet. I need to ask more questions.” And that’s part of what makes history so compelling.
Credit: Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections.