Religion and Social Change: A Q & A on How MLK’s Letter Holds Impact 54 Years Later

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 following his imprisonment for peacefully marching in conscientious opposition to a judge’s injunction. The piece, called “the most cogent and influential defense of nonviolent resistance ever written,” has proven to be a particularly powerful way for teaching about the complex role of religion in public life.

According to Linell Cady, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, the letter illuminates how religion can heighten conflict, as well as serve as a bridge to peace. Seen through the lens of race, religion can be a powerful force for social action on behalf of democratic ideals.

In reflecting on the current climate of protests and concerns around hate crimes, we asked Cady, who uses the letter in her classes each year, and several of the center’s undergraduate fellows, about the meaning and impact of reading “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

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Q: What was your intent when you started to have your students read “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail?” 

Cady: King was writing in response to some southern Christian leaders who had criticized his role in leading nonviolent demonstrations. They were worried that it was generating conflict—which was considered extremist—and insisted that a more cautious stance was best.

The letter is King’s brilliant, eloquent, and prophetic response to this charge. He accuses his fellow Christian ministers of their privileged complacency, saying that they are choosing order over justice. He maintains that they have an unfounded belief that progress will come with more time. To King, progress depended upon pushing for greater freedom and justice.

Why is MLK’s letter relevant now, 54 years later? 

Cady: One student introduced our class discussion by sharing her dismay that the letter felt as fresh and relevant today as it must have felt back then.

Others quickly agreed and shared their worries that we are moving into even tougher times. They pointed to the recent election of Donald Trump who led the “birther movement”. They also pointed to Trump’s tolerance for and participation in the demonization of Muslims at home and abroad.

The challenges of building a world where difference can flourish are enormous. King’s letter serves as a reminder that “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” It is a message that bears repeating.

King’s letter also speaks to a big question in the current dialog on race. White Americans can easily slip into the idea that racial injustice has been pretty much solved; after all, MLK has his own holiday, and we elected an African American president. Ironically, these iconic figures can blind us to the continued legacy of slavery and injustice in American life that is embedded in institutions and practices.

The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to awaken Americans to these injustices. The counter of this movement claims that “all lives matter,” but this approach invokes an abstract universal principle to defuse the hard political and social work of achieving racial justice—much like the moderate Southern Christian religious leaders did in King’s time. Simply put, it is extremely relevant now, even 54 years later.

Q: What are key lessons that you want your students to take away from the letter?

Cady: Reading King’s letter really brings home the point that peace is not simply the absence of conflict—that peacebuilding isn’t simply to contain or end violence and conflict. It must include creating a more equitable world—a just and sustainable peace.

Additionally, King’s works—along with Gandhi’s work that we also read—testify to the powerful and progressive role that religion can play in social transformation. As King puts it, his Christian faith compels him to be a nonviolent “extremist for love.”

That said, the fact that King calls out his fellow Christian ministers puts a spotlight on the way that Christianity has also sanctioned and offered a moral cover of sorts to the racial injustice in our history. By this, students realize a critical lesson: religions cannot be essentialized. Any religion, regardless of what it is, offers a diverse variety of moral and political positions.

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Odessa Clugston, a junior in Justice Studies and Political Science, and Chris Jordan, a senior in Business and Global Studies, participated in the undergraduate fellows last Fall. Here are their thoughts on the reading.

Q: So you read “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in Dr. Cady’s class. What did the reading mean to you?

Odessa: Though I had read the letter several times throughout high school, reading the piece amidst our current political climate made the message further resonate. Though Dr. King accomplished incredible strides towards equality, our nation still struggles to recognize the human dignity of all communities. This piece continually reminds me that the path towards social justice is a living ideal that requires continual work to achieve - an ideal that we all must work towards together.

Chris: For me, the Letter humanized King. It is one of the best examples of King as a firebrand who is deeply frustrated and determined. I think it’s important to see the joint image of MLK as a radical, frustrated individual in addition to the saintly caricature that is often portrayed.

Q: What is a key lesson that you took away from it?

Odessa: I think the key lesson I continually learn from Dr. King's work is that addressing injustice has always been—and will continue to be—complicated and hard. Progress is not always linear, and the fact that issues discussed in the letter persist today reminds us all of that point. Only through standing up for what one believes can greater equality be achieved.

Chris: Absolutely. Also, in the Letter, King argues that institutions of religion should be used as powerful tools in the moral fight against segregation. In a political climate that is so hostile to certain people of faith while others stand idly by, this is a pretty important takeaway.

Q: Would you recommend that others read it?

Odessa: Yes! I think we all can learn lessons about activism, human empathy, and movement organization from Dr. King. Just as Dr. King writes, we all must never become complacent towards injustice, and his letter reminds us of that salient point.

Chris: I would recommend it, 100%. Not only it is vital for understanding King’s legacy, it also paints an important image of a broken America that can only be fixed by individuals fighting for cooperation and peace.

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You can read a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by clicking here