Letter from a Birmingham Jail–Part I

January 18, 2009

As I indicated in my last post, I want to go through the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and make some observations.  I’ll quote the meat of the Letter, but omit extraneous material for brevity: 

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms. I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”  I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. . . .  I am here because I have organizational ties here.But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. 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 all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.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. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

This introduction sets up MLK’s defense of his activities to white Christian leaders in the South, and his appeal to their consciences.  It also briefly defends his involvement in the affairs of the Birmingham citizens when he himself is not from Birmingham.

I suppose he often heard arguments similar to this: “what do you care what goes on in Birmingham?  You don’t live here, and no one is doing anything to harm you.”  Sounds a lot like a bumper sticker I once saw: “Don’t like abortion?  Don’t have one.”  Obviously, these conservative arguments in favor of the status quo miss the point.  Not that it is exclusively a conservative argument; I have also been asked with respect to homosexual marriage, “what do you care if gays get married?” 

MLK’s response: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Interesting that MLK says that everyone has not only a right to consider the behavior of others, but the duty to do so.  Thus, people who believe abortion terminates a human being’s life would have a duty to fight this injustice.  Opponents of homosexual marriage would have a duty to preserve the moral well-being of society by seeking to prevent the government’s sanctioning and licensing of (not merely permitting) immoral behavior.  People in America would have a duty to seek an end to government-imposed starvation in third world countries.  Not to say that it is necessarily the government’s job to prevent all instances of injustice; but private citizens must use their resources for the common good, which often means doing things that the government cannot. 

MLK’s Approach Compared to Abortion Protests

Interestingly, this supposed meddling in the affairs of others is at the heart of non-violent protest.  And if you think non-violent protest has fallen out of use, that probably results from a lack of media coverage of abortion protests.  As Jon Shields notes in his recent book: “some 45 percent of respondents in the Citizens Participation Survey who reported participating in a national protest did so because of abortion. What is more, nearly three quarters of all abortion-issue protesters are pro-life, an unsurprising fact given that the pro-life movement is challenging rather than defending the current policy regime. Meanwhile, all other social issues, including pornography, gay rights, school prayer, and sex education, account for only 3 percent of all national protest activity.”

It would appear that the heirs of MLK’s attitude toward fighting injustice are not modern liberals, but pro-life activists.  As noted by Prof. Shields:

As a movement that wants to preserve the status quo, [the pro-choice view] simply has nothing to gain from engaging its opponents, especially on college campuses where the pro-choice view is a default progressive position for many students. But the pro-choice movement does have something to lose if bested in public debate. Moreover, pro-choice advocates know very well that even the minds of activists in their ranks can be changed. Prominent examples include abortion providers and the cofounder of NARAL Pro-Choice America, not to mention many less prominent rank-and-file activists.

Thus, proponents of the pro-choice view act exactly like the white Christians addressed by MLK in his letter by seeking to stymie debate and keep the “outsiders” from stirring up the conscience of the community.  Proponents of the pro-life view, on the other hand, are seeking the attention and public debate that MLK sought and achieved.  So with respect to abortion, in a way, the liberals have become the conservatives and the conservatives have become the liberals.


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