Recently, I was confronted with Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail again. It’s not the first time I’ve read the essay, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Each time is honestly a punch to the gut as I’m confronted with the struggle for what I’ve always considered in my life basic American rights. Things like the ability to vote, or the opportunity to shop from whatever store I desire, or even the ability to get a drink of water from a water fountain if I’m thirsty. I’ve never once thought about any of these “rights,” and yet, as I read King’s letter I’m confronted with the truth that many men and women born and raised in our country couldn’t participate in these same activities just fifty years ago.
By the time the letter was written, most people knew of the struggle for civil rights. King, and others, were using non-violent protests to shed light on the evil that was segregation. They would participate in boycotts, they would lead marches, and they would stage sit-ins, all in an effort to make the evil of segregation visible so that it could not be ignored any longer. Yes, they often started with attempts at negotiation, but often the negotiations (with white skinned leaders in both business and politics) led to empty promises that were never fulfilled. Black and brown skinned American citizens felt they had no other choice, but to stage non-violent protests in order to have their messages heard. It was a long and painful struggle; that in many ways still lives on today.
King’s letter at this particular time came about after he was arrested in Birmingham following a protest. King’s letter was addressed to many in the “white community” who were not necessarily for segregation, but who were unwilling to upset the current society. They were complacent participants in segregation, not openly racist, but because of their lack of action, were in essence allowing the current culture to remain in place. Particularly, King’s letter was written to southern white clergy, who were asking King to slow down, to allow change to happen slowly or naturally, and asking him to quit disrupting the peace of the city. King was frustrated to hear southern white clergy encourage him to slow down, especially since they should have understood the words of the prophet Amos when he says that God wants no more praise and worship until justice rolls down like waters, righteousness like an ever ending stream. In fact, King would say that the biggest challenge facing those struggling for civil rights was not the political authorities, but the southern white clergy who were unwilling to join the cause of justice. Sadly, the white church was failing in their effort to become advocates for those who have no voice; to advocate for their christian brothers and sisters whose only difference from themselves was the color of their skin. It wasn’t that they wanted segregation per say, it’s just that they weren’t willing to openly join the struggle.
Now I must confess, I am a white middle class male. I was born and raised in Ohio, but have lived longer in the south than I ever did in the north. I have a doctoral degree, and while I wouldn’t consider myself rich, I really lack nothing financially. I have never been oppressed in my life in any way. In fact, if I’m honest, I have benefited from white privilege. It has helped me obtain my current place in life. On top of this, I have spent eighteen years in full-time ministry, the whole time in southern cities in Tennessee and Georgia
Everytime I read King’s letter I recognize, I am the very person King was addressing. I am the southern white clergy. And I as I understand my place, I come face to face with a question I want to avoid; if I had been in their place, would I have acted differently? I want to believe that I would have marched with King, that I would have risked my position, or even my life, to join the struggle for civil rights. I want to believe that I would have been different from so many white preachers who for one reason or another remained safe. However, I have to recognize that there are times when I prefer being safe, or keeping the peace, instead of joining the fight. I, at times, value safety and caution. So, while I hope I would have joined the struggle, I’m confronted with the truth that perhaps I would have remained on the side. Thus, King’s words sting to the heart and I wonder, do I enjoy my white privilege so much that I won’t risk my benefits for the sake of others?
I then ask myself, in which ways in my present culture do I need to pursue justice for the oppressed? How has my privilege given me certain advantages, and how can I help others receive those same benefits? How can I help to pursue justice for those with black and brown skin, so that they aren’t continually oppressed, just in less legal or visible ways? How can I pursue justice for women, who at times can’t speak in church, can’t achieve advancement at work, or often aren’t even paid as much as males who are doing the same job? How can I pursue justice for undocumented workers? How can I pursue justice for the generationally poor? How can I pursue justice for the less educated? How can I pursue justice for those who don’t have access to healthcare?
King reminds us that those who are oppressed often don’t have a voice of their own. They are dependent on those who are members of the power structure to advocate for them and their rights. Thus, perhaps one way to honor King is to recognize in which areas do I have privilege or power, and how can I use that privilege or power to advocate for those who are oppressed? As a southern white clergyman, perhaps I need to do more to join the struggle for those who are oppressed, until justice rolls down like mighty waters, righteousness like an ever flowing stream.