Have you ever read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous letter written from a Birmingham jail in April 1963? Now might be a good time, since February 2012 is soon to close and will mark 36 years of being national Black History month.
I came upon his remarkable letter a few months ago, while researching the topic of prison ministry for a project at work. Since then, I’ve become much more appreciative of how not only Dr. King applied religion and philosophy toward the struggle for black civil rights, but also how he used it as clarion call for non-violent civic engagement.
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and 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 us all indirectly.”
“My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the non-violent resister may sound rather shocking. But, I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, non-violent tension in society which is necessary for growth.”
Dr. King was very much on my mind, having just returned from an incredible trip to Washington DC, which included a visit to the MLK memorial and a stop at Freedom Park, the starting point for the 1963 March on Washington.
Naturally then, I was excited when I received an invitation days later from the Delaware County Historical Society (DCHS) and The Providence Forum to hear Dr. Peter Lillback discuss his new book “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in honor of Black History month.
I attended the event on Sunday, Feb. 26th which was held at the Community Performing Arts Center at the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology. The event also marked PIT’s month-long celebration of the contributions from Delaware County’s black community. There was even a special appearance from Chester city’s mayor, the Honorable John Linder and his wife.
It seemed fitting to recognize Dr. King since he received his bachelor’s in divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, before it merged with other religious institutions in Rochester, NY. (as a side note, I want to thank Mrs. Jayne Garrison, DCHS’s board chair for pointing out this important historical footnote).
Dr. Lillback, who is also president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA, describes the letter as a scholarly masterpiece that reveals Dr. King’s theological genius, academic rigor and personal dynamism. “Looking at Dr. King as a just a social activist is to see only about one-third of him as a person. I wanted to present a more holistic picture of the man,” said Lillback.
Looking back on this month, I have a whole new appreciation of Dr. King. I’ve come to know him as a preacher, teacher and scholar; a son, husband and father; a dreamer, change agent and gifted writer; a leader, activist, friend and brother.
What an absolute thrill it was to be in the same spot on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps where Dr. King addressed the march’s crowd that hot August day.
Our tour guide asked us to imagine how he must have felt overlooking the sea of people on the National Mall – coming almost eye-to-eye with the Washington Monument. I could not.
Then, Dr. Lillback asked us to imagine how we would write “a prison epistle” completely by memory on the side of a prison cot – no reference books, no desk, not even proper writing paper. I could not.
But, then I remembered Dr. King’s unshakeable faith in God and America’s promise of freedom and that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come from our Creator.
And I thought, ah-ha! That’s how he was able do it. Because as former freedom marcher Mayor Linder said, “Dr. King was locked up but NEVER in jail.”