Radical Message of Dr. King

The Radical Message of Dr. Martin Luther King

READING#1 – Letter From A Birmingham Jail (excerpt)

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by inAtlantaand 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 anywhere within its bounds

Reading# 2 – Letter From A Birmingham Jail (excerpt)

You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.



From “The Meaning of The King Holiday” by Coretta Scott King

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not only for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all a day of service. All acrossAmericaon theHoliday, his followers perform service in hospitals and shelters and prisons and wherever people need some help. It is a day of volunteering to feed the hungry, rehabilitate housing, tutoring those who can’t read, mentoring at-risk youngsters, consoling the broken-hearted and a thousand other projects for building the beloved community of his dream.

The words of Coretta Scott King


This day of service is supported by Dr. King’s family and by such veterans of the civil rights movement as John Lewis.  John Lewis is a hero.  If you go back and look at the highlights of the civil rights movement in the nineteen sixties, John Lewis was always there, right on the front lines.  He sat in at lunch counters; he was a freedom rider, sitting on an integrated bus at it drove through the south and was viciously beaten at one of the stops it made; he marched in Selma and was beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.  If any two people have a right to say what Dr. King’s legacy was about and how we ought to celebrate it, it is John Lewis and most especially the late Coretta Scott King.  It would be a bold claim that to say they were wrong.

And yet, I stand here today to say that I believe they are wrong in their call for a day of service.  Rather than a day of service, the birthday of Dr. King ought to be a day of social justice.

What is the difference? 

Following the Civil War, schools in the south were segregated and most African American children received an education only through 8th grade if they were lucky.  And the books they had were the ones passed down to them by the white school when those books were deemed too old to be use by white students.

Private schools were established in the south for African American students; the Calhoun School is a famous example.  These schools were founded and supported by those who recognized the importance of education for all children.  The Frothingham Fund was a special fund held in trust by the American Unitarian Association, to be used “for the education of the colored people”.  Annual reports on this fund were written for the Association in the early 1900’s by one, Henry Wilder Foote, later the minister of The First Church In Belmont.  At the time the monies were divided between eight different schools. 

This act of service, providing education to black children,  did good works; but this was not the long term, systemic solution to the lack of education for black students.  The systemic solution was the ending of segregation in education across the south. 

Soup kitchens are good things; people who are hungry get to eat.  But supporting a soup kitchen should raise questions.  Questions are dangerous things.  As the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador said: “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor had no food, they called me a Communist.”  Archbishop Romero had moved from acts of social service to questions that led him to acts of social justice.  He was assassinated in 1980.

Dr. Martin Luther King, had a similar legacy which was not engagement in social service but engagement in social justice. 

The City Fathers of Birmingham and Montgomery Alabama, of Jackson Mississippi and of Atlanta Georgia would not have been at all concerned if Dr. King had come into those cities and called upon people to join in a day of service.  They would not have used mass arrests to stop people from volunteering at the local hospital.  They would not have used fire hoses to break up gatherings of people who were planning on picking up trash in a city park.  They would not have used dogs to attack people who were collecting food for the local soup kitchen.  They reacted with violence and arrests because Dr. King was challenging the status quo; he was calling for social change; he was working to overturn the evil system of segregation.  And he was moving on to the evil system of unjust distribution of wealth.  And so he died supporting a strike by garbage collectors.  This was not a racial justice issue; it was an economic justice issue.   Dr. King heard the cries of the suffering and he responded.

Turning the commemoration of his birthday into a day of social service is taming his message into one that the racist political structure of the south would have been happy to hear.  And it is taming his message into one that the unjust economic structure in this nation is happy to hear.  It is taming the meaning of Dr. King’s legacy and life, which challenged both of these.

There is ever greater need in this country; that ought to stir ever greater questions in our minds.  Why is it that the poor have no food?  Why is it that the homeless have no place to live?  Why is it that people who worked hard all of their lives and were promised pensions and health care now find that they have neither?  Why is it that economic disparity is increasing in this nation?

Acts of social service are wonderful things.  They are an important part of life and we should all engage in them.  But they are not the end goal, the stopping place; they are but the beginning of the journey we each should take.  And that journey progresses when we begin to ask the important questions that lead us on to acts of social justice.

It is only through those questions and through the work of social justice that arises from those questions that we will truly build the beloved community.  It is only in that way that we will genuinely honor the life of Dr. King who worked to end discrimination and injustice of all kinds.

When we hear the cries of the suffering, when we hear the voices of the outcasts, when we see the tears of those in pain and when we work to eliminate the cause of the suffering we will begin to build the beloved community.

The beloved community is that place where every person, black and white; straight,  gay and transgendered; Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu are all welcome and included.