Barnard College’s Jonathan Reider of Barnard College reminds us in a New York Times op-ed today that this is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” one of King’s most-quoted writings. Reider uses this occasion–and the righteous indignation that the Letter often expressed–to challenge a conventional view (particularly among conservatives) of King as a “champion of American exceptionalism” who believed and taught that “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” were the key not only to civil rights for African-Americans but for the proper ordering of civil society generally.
Reider doesn’t have much problem finding passages in King’s letter expressing “black anger” and asserting that African-Americans would have to seize equal rights from an unwilling and often-uncaring white majority.
In a line worthy of Malcolm X decrying white “tricknology,” King savaged what he saw as white mendacity: “This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ” His target was not the Ku Klux Klan, but a vast majority of “moderate” Americans, including the Kennedy administration, who had urged him to postpone the protests. Presumably, they meant never, too.
Such passages are indeed helpful in combatting the myth that King was some sort of supra-historical prophet calling on everyone–African-Americans as well as white folk–to forget about race and racism and simply become proud Americans with no particular concern for his own long-suffering community.
But I think Reider understates a key element of King’s message that was as prominent in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” as any references to America’s founding ideals or to black “self-sufficiency”: the Judeo-Christian heritage as expressed in Jesus’ radical egalitarianism and the willingness of the Jewish prophets to call down divine wrath on their own wicked societies. King was, after all, a Christian minister, and the Letter was actually addressed to the white clergy of Birmingham, who were urging the end of civil rights “disturbances.” Just as he often shamed “moderate” or even “liberal” white politicians to live up to their stated values, King with justifiable anger sought to shame ministers of the Gospel who forever sought excuses for maintaining injustice and blaming the victims of violence for the “trouble” they had caused.
These dual but ever-present themes in King’s writings and sermons of asking white Americans to live up to the civic and to the religious values they claimed to live by can be easy to conflate nowadays, when conservatives so often claim a monopoly on both. But the teachings of Jefferson, Jeremiah and Jesus have always co-existed in uneasy tension and sometimes dynamic synergy. Just as the American revolutionary tradition is always a challenge to the political status quo, so too is the American religious tradition a continuing challenge to moral complacency–very often a complacency exemplified, as it was in Birmingham in 1963, by religious leaders.
So Reider is correct that re-reading King’s actual words is a necessary antidote to efforts to domesticate this “fiery” leader into a validator of America as a “color-blind society” where the abolition of Jim Crow accomplished everything for which the civil rights movement struggled. But those words reflected not just righteous anger at a white society that had fought tooth and nail to maintain inequality over two centuries, but a prophetic demand that pious believers had better stop rationalizing evil or face consequences far more fateful than the embarrassment and inconvenience caused by non-violent protesters.