Honestly, I’ve never read more than clips of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s works, even though I’ve talked them up. A major world-changer, Dr. King is mostly known for his “I Have a Dream” speech sixty-years ago during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. On a whim I decided I should read something he wrote in its entirety. That’s how I ended up listening to the free audiobook, Letter From Birmingham Jail.

It was a quick read, I completed almost the whole thing on a short flight that was mostly taking-off and landing. Then I listened to the last few pages a couple days ago, finishing it on the anniversary week of the renown March on Washington D.C. Dr. It turns out that King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail was actually written four months before this event. We still need to hear his message and the anniversary march at the Capitol today. Equal racial rights is still something we are working on.

Notes on Letter From Birmingham Jail

I had a few major observations I wanted to share. Here are my notes on Letter From Birmingham Jail:

1.) Letter From Birmingham Jail is for us today

Although it was written 60 years ago, long before computers or cell phones, it was just as much written for today. Not “carries over and can apply to,” but rather I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t written within the past three years. For example, how he was confronting police brutality even as they technically followed the law. Or how he was interacting with religious leaders and their responses, mimicking today’s so well.

It was disturbing how relevant this book was.

2.) The challenge to question laws is for me

Another observation I had was that this letter was written for me. It was written to White faith leaders. Even if I don’t have the same roles I used to, I am still a White faith leader (read about that here). And even for those who don’t have faith in God, Dr. King addresses those who have a moral standard (pretty sure that is all of us).

His challenge hit on a tension point I regularly encounter–the question of when to disobey laws or make laws for what is right, versus following laws that are wrong, but because they are legal, we act as though they are right. (I’d also add the tension to indifference to creating laws that make things right). This is a tough one–what comes first? These aren’t new:

  • Should we obey a flawed governement?
  • Should we peacefully and respectfully disobey for the sake of making the law more closely aligned with justice, or righteousness?

It seems, unless we experience and feel the injustice (like Phase One of Rising Up), Christians especially are known for comfortably choosing to following the law instead. And then we get frustrated when we wonder why the legal Nazi Germany indoctrinated “Christians” to kill their humankind. Regardless, I felt like Dr. King’s words were addressed to me as I fall into his intended audience so well.

3.) If his message is the same as mine, it is time we heed it

The craziest thing about this letter was that hearing it was like listening to myself talk. He was echoing what I often say or write about. Which, as Dr. King came long before I did, really means I am probably echoing him. By some osmosis I’ve sucked in his ideas and am regurgitating them.

Either that, or they are the natural conclusions of one who tries to love others through living justly and following Jesus. Or maybe these ideas are still the prophetic words our country still needs to hear, and so they show up time and time again–just stated in slightly different ways.

That feels weighty, even scary in its awesomeness. If the call to rise up against racial injustice, an essential expression of my faith, has been a message coming forth for so many decades, how have we not heeded it as well as we should? Why did we think we finished bringing justice, and succeeded for so long? Are we doing that again? How many have suffered because we haven’t risen to this call?

Today, three Black people were gunned down by a White man with a swastika in Florida, known for his hatred of people of color. How can this be so?

After listening to Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, I must conclude that our apathy must be produced by soothing lies from hell itself. Although I am usually all about pouring out grace as we slowly become changemakers–today I tremble at what will befall us if we never learn to provide dignity to our fellow humankind, imago dei.

4. Dr. King is an everyday hero, no different than us

Lastly, I found it cool how Dr. King has become a hero when really, he was just an everyday person who would not stand for Injustice. He didn’t have a massive platform at first. He just simply tried to do the right thing and work with the right people. And it did change the country and it influence the world. I find that hopeful and inspiring. He would probably be so surprised at the ripple-effect of his influence!

It reminds me of Average Advocate’e founding core beliefs: It is the ordinary people who change the world.

If you want to listen to or read Letter From Birmingham Jail free, you can do so here on the Libby App.

Also, here is a note about today’s 60th March on Washington today: “Its organizers made clear that the march was not a commemoration, but a reassertion of the demands made at the memorial in 1963.” (Washington Post, August 26th, 2023)

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