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Will Privileged Majority Take King’s Letter to Heart?

Headlines and social media feeds were filled earlier this month with articles about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

King wrote his powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” five years earlier on April 16, 1963.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was a regional expansion of the local work, primarily the bus boycott, that King and his associates had begun earlier in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

In April 1963, SCLC joined with anti-segregation activities in Birmingham, Alabama. The ensuing Birmingham Campaign included mass meetings, marches, lunch counter sit-ins and other nonviolent activities.

In response, on April 10, ity officials obtained a state circuit court injunction against the protests.

Two days later, on Good Friday, King was arrested for violating the anti-protest injunction and was placed in solitary confinement in the Birmingham city jail.

On the day King was arrested, eight Birmingham clergymen (and they were all men) published a statement in the local newspapers criticizing the protests led by King. In many ways, it seems to have been a good and reasonable statement.

Those clergymen were the “white moderates” of the city, a cut above the abundant bigots of Birmingham. But still.

In response, using the margins of the newspaper and even toilet paper, King penned what became one of his most powerful writings, his nearly 7,000-word “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

King’s lengthy letter was made public on April 16, 1963, and now 55 years later it is still well worth reading – and considering thoughtfully.

King’s letter was included in his book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” first published in 1964 – and it was Birmingham’s religious leaders’ appeal for patience that King objected to the most.

After all, the Civil War had been over for nearly a century – and most African-Americans were still by no means fully free.

Here are some of the most important statements in King’s letter:

  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  • Lamentably, … it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
  • Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
  • Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
  • We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
  • Nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.

Now, 55 years after King first penned his letter, we who bask in the “blessing” of “majority privilege” – the advantages those of us who are white and/or male and/or Christian enjoy in this country – need to take his words to heart.

We need, for example, to listen to the challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And we must not excuse present injustices felt or suffered by people of minority by pointing out (‘splaining) how things are much better than they used to be.

In many ways, certainly, things are better for people of color now than they were in 1963.

But that doesn’t make the injustices of the present any less painful, and those who suffer injustices now won’t be encouraged by hearing that perhaps in another 55 years there may well be full equality, racial and otherwise.

Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, The View from This Seat. You can follow him on Twitter @LKSeat.