WASHINGTON—Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took a group of white Alabama clergymen to task for suggesting he find ways, other than demonstrations and protests, to seek racial equality.
The civil rights leader did not mince words telling the group that included Protestant pastors, a rabbi and a Catholic bishop—Auxiliary Bishop Joseph A. Durick of what was then the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham, Ala.—that he was “disappointed with the church.”
In their public letter to Rev. King, published in an April 13, 1963, newspaper, the religious leaders urged him to negotiate and wait for court actions and described the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham as “unwise and untimely.”
Rev. King, held in solitary confinement for eight days for violating the city’s ban on civil rights demonstrations, began his response to the clergymen April 16, the fourth day of his prison sentence. He used a pencil to write on margins of a newspaper and slips of paper, and he wrote only during the day since his cell had no overhead light.
The letter, addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen” became the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Jonathan Bass, history professor at Birmingham’s Samford University and author of the 2002 book Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail, said Rev. King’s letter is “without a doubt the most important written document of the civil rights era.”
He told Catholic News Service April 15 that the letter was meant for a much broader audience than just these eight religious leaders but, since he wrote to them as a minister, it has deeply spiritual themes.
For the letter’s 50th anniversary, public readings of the letter are taking place not only in Birmingham, but across the United States and in places around the world.
Religious figures in particular are not just reading the letter but responding to it.
Leaders of U.S. Christian denominations who are part of the ecumenical organization Christian Churches Together gathered in Birmingham April 14-15 to sign a response to the letter and discuss its meaning then and now.
One participant was Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and former bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville. In an April 14 address to the gathering, he stressed the importance of responding to Rev. King’s words by asking forgiveness for past wrongs, appreciating efforts that have been made and being “resolved for more action.”
He commended steps made by the Catholic Church including its Aug. 23, 1963, statement “On Racial Harmony,” issued by the administrative board of what was then the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the predecessor of today’s USCCB. It said: “We must insist that the heart of the race question is moral and religious.”
He also quoted the U.S. bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” which said that “racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”
The archbishop told CNS that when he reread Rev. King’s letter he “recognized not just what a classic it is, but how touching it is to uncover the soul of someone seriously trying to follow Christ” and trying to move people to action.