By Lawrence W. Rodgers, seekingfirst.org
What would Dr. King say about Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Jones, Yvette Smith, or Michael Brown?
Many individuals have quoted Dr. King lately, and being someone who has studied a great deal about Dr. King, I must say I feel too many are only interpreting Dr. King through the “I Have A Dream” speech. However, if that speech and with some short video clips is all you know of King, you do not know him. If you are curious as to how Dr. King would respond to the #BlackLivesMatter movement please do understand, beloved, whichever answer you come up with it would certainly not be inaction. I would encourage anyone who cares about justice, in any form, to read the landmark open letter by King, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This article seeks to take this inspired letter and use it to prophetically address some questions for our time.
King wrote this letter to address the criticisms he received from clergy in 1963. They criticized his activism, calling them “unwise and untimely.” They also criticized his involvement in Alabama since he was a native Georgian. Yes, King, who stated he rarely ever responds to criticism, responds this time because these critiques were from other clergy.
In King’s response he tells them first, “I am in Birmingham because injustices are here.” King says this to those individuals who criticized him as an outside agitator. As expected, when communicating with clergy, he gives Biblical examples of 8th Century prophets leaving their little villages to proclaim their prophetic message, and Paul leaving Tarsus to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Greco-Roman world. Likewise, King says he is now called to carry the “Gospel of Freedom.” Jesus similarly confirms this “Gospel of Freedom” in Luke 4 declaring that he has come to “set the captives free” and to “bring liberty to the oppressed.”
King then says he “cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King refused to accept the comforts that come from distance; rather he recognized that sitting on the couch while injustices continue anywhere is an unjust itself. He recognized that even though you might live in Texas, what happens in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, still affects all of us because it is an injustice. Even if you are you not a young black male or a young black female, these injustices still affect all of us because we are all a part of humanity.
King had faced criticism for his demonstrations. In this letter, he responds to them beautifully by saying, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” In Ferguson on the night of November 24, peaceful protestors expressed their disagreement and dissatisfaction with police brutality, racial profiling and the prison industrial complex by exercising their basic American rights of assembly and free speech. While a few opportunists took advantage of the situation and looted stores, and others with an uncontrollable rage were accused of burning things, the bulk of protest was peaceful. No state officials were harmed, no law enforcement officers were harmed, but several protestors were harmed, including Dornella Connors. She was a pregnant woman who was shot in the eye while seated in a car, and she lost her eye. The media, of course, spent a tremendous amount of airtime covering “looters” and the burning buildings, instead of spending time discussing the horrible conditions in Ferguson that prompted the public unrest.
King then goes on in his letter to discuss the four basic steps of any nonviolent campaign:
- Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist
- Direct action
One of my greatest heartbreaks was the response from many Christians to the recent decisions of Grand Juries across the nation refusing to indict the slaying of unarmed black people. The trouble, I felt, was an obvious lack of research, yet strong opinions suggested extreme apathy, indifference, or even hatred. My research revealed the following:
- Black on black crime is a ridiculous excuse for violence against blacks because while 91 percent of black homicides are committed towards other blacks, 83 percent of white homicides are towards other whites. All communities are more likely to do violence to one another before doing it to another community; this is not unique to blacks.
- The idea that blacks are drugged criminals is another poor excuse to kill unarmed blacks.Whites comprise the majority of drug users and sellers, but were only 30% of the state prison population with drug convictions in 2011.
- Some have even said blacks should stop complaining because things are better today then they were yesterday, which is another ridiculous excuse.There are still obvious and blaring disparities, such as 75% of people in state prisons for drug conviction are people of color even though blacks and whites sale and use drugs at roughly the same rate. Furthermore, two to three black people were killed every week in 19th and 20th century lynchings and today a black person is killed by an officer more than twice a week, and studies show a black person killed by an officer every 28 hours.
These are just a few studies out of many facts one could cite demonstrating disparities, but these such disparities are not limited to the criminal justice system. They can also be seen in housing, medicine, financing, education, and in virtually every venue of American life. There can be studies cited of easily observable racial disparities. Dr. King says the second step is negotiation, the third is self-purification―which I believe he practiced via the spiritual disciplines―and the fourth step is, finally, direct action.
In King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he gives clear examples of the kind of direct action he is speaking about. After trying to negotiate with the local merchants to take down “humiliating racial signs,” King and other leaders decide to organize what they called “a strong economic-withdrawal program” for the Easter season. King realized the direct connection between capitalism and racial oppression. In fact, capitalism finds her genesis in America via the American slave trade. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to believe that capitalism being birthed in exploitation has lived and flourished off of the blood of the oppressed. A boycott speaks loudly to the power structure because while the blood of the oppressed flowing from the streets may not cause some in power to not even blink, what does cause people to pay attention is the lack of money flowing out of streets into their pockets.
The night the Grand Jury decision was handed down, I, along with several other clergy members across the nation spoke out and encouraged a nationwide boycott of Black Friday. Many people joined this protest across the nation to send a message to the power structure that our lives matter. I believe this was fruitful because there was a reported an 11% drop in sales on this Black Friday compared to previous years.
King then speaks about the criticism over his sit-in and marches that violated the “laws” of the land causing either himself, or those influenced by him, to often be arrested. He responds, with this:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
King continues with this regarding breaking segregation laws or laws meant to uphold segregation:
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine “an unjust law is no law at all.”
King states in his letter it is actually a love for the law that encourages the crusader for justice to break unjust laws, and to do the full length of the time spent in jail willingly. King states that one who does this does not abhor the law but rather truly loves the law. For the protestors across the country, they can find solace in the words of King when King writes:
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine
whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares
with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of
harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An
unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human
personality is unjust.
King makes it clear he was not an anarchist, nor did he support anarchy, but rather is was a lover of just laws and willing to suffer for the creation of or preservation of real justice. King defended the sit-ins and marches, saying they can be applied directly to those protesting police brutality doing “die-ins,” “blocking highways,” supporting boycotts, and disturbing the power structures that oppress others.
The oppression of one of us in America is the oppression of us all. The oppression of one of us in the world is the oppression of all of humanity. Please take courage, please do not faint, please continue to stand up for what is right in our world.
Thanks for reading!
~Lawrence W. Rodgers
 Mauer, M. (2009). The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project. Available at: http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/dp_raceanddrugs.pdf (p. 8, Tbl. 3).
 Carson, E. A. & Golinelli, D. Prisoners in 2012 – Advance Counts. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Available at:http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p12ac.pdf (p. 11, Tbl. 10).
 Results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, NSDUH series H-34, DHHS pub. no. SMA 08-4343 (2007)
 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/25/mike-brown-shooting-jim-crow-lynchings-in-common & http://sfbayview.com/2014/10/more-black-people-killed-by-police-than-were-lynched-during-jim-crow/
 See “Capitalism and Slavery” by Eric Williams