Injustice anywhere," King went on, "is a threat to justice everywhere."
As to the social and racial injustices King is speaking of, a bit of background into conditions in the South - and specifically, in Alabama - is worthy of some space in this paper. In fact, just a few years prior to the civil rights activism in Birmingham (that saw King arrested and placed in a jail), the lynching of African-Americans in Alabama was not uncommon. The New York Times (August 30, 1933) reported that two "Negroes" were found lynched near Birmingham on a Sunday morning, but the good news was "mob murders have declined"; indeed, the paper reported, "...in the last ten years there have only been four lynchings" in Alabama. And on July 26, 1947, The New York Times quoted the Tuskegee Institute's data that "six out of every seven potential lynchings have been prevented" over the past ten years in the south.
Between the years 1937 and 1947, the Times' story continued, "there have been 273 prevented lynchings, against forty-three cases in which a mob succeeded" in hanging black men in the South. "Alert public officials" and ordinary citizens have been the heroes in the 273 cases of attempted but failed lynching incidents. That having been said, a total of 4,717 black men had been lynched since 1882, an appalling statistic and part of urgency for the push for civil rights justice in 1963.
King always preached to people to use non-violence; he employed tactics used by Gandhi, who is mentioned by Satrapi on page 20 ("The Hindus and the Muslims must make peace to overthrow the British").
In the Letter, King wishes that the clergy - who "deplored the demonstrations" - would express "a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations." The Letter specifically rejects a "superficial kind of social analysis" that addresses "effects" and not "causes." One cause clearly on King's mind was the injustice in education; indeed, a month after King was imprisoned, the New York Times (Lewis, 1963) reported that Alabama was the only state in the U.S. that refused to integrate public schools. In Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana blacks were blocked from voting, and white segregationist's mob actions against blacks were commonplace.
Meanwhile, in Satrapi's book, (p. 118) her Uncle Taher tells her mother that "The butcher told me he's seen kids executed in the street without even having been judged. The shame of it." The war with Iraq was going on at that time, but there was also a war at home in Iran, as "anyone showing resistance to the regime was persecuted," Satrapi writes.
In the Letter, King wrote that "...there have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation." His message has been thoroughly validated in the press; to wit, in January, 1957, "4 Negro Churches and Homes of 2 Ministers [were] Attacked" (NY Times, Jan. 11, 1957). King's Letter was reasonably gracious in its condemnation of the white clergy; "I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leaders," he wrote. Satrapi and her family endured many bombings in their community during the war with Iraq; one even destroyed the house of her friend Neda; "When we walked past the Baba-Levy's house, which was completely destroyed, I could feel that she was discreetly pulling me away. Something told me that the Baba-Levys had been at home. Something caught my attention" (Satrapi p. 142).
King continued, saying that instead of rabbis, priests, and ministers being "among our strongest allies" some have in fact "been outright opponents...and too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows." As harsh as that statement was, King wasn't through with the clergy; "In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities."
The news media had often covered the very Christian-themed issues that King alluded to: On July 7, 1959, the New York Times' headline read "Birmingham Resists...
King prefaces his call for backing from church leaders with his own recollection of traveling through the southern states "on sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings." He remembers looking at the "beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward," and he recalled asking himself "over and over...'What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
The solutions King presented were not so much solutions, as they were demands that churches live up to their pronouncements, that churches stop being "archdefender[s] of the status quo." He was basically saying, there are two problems here; one, racial injustice (including police and citizen violence) was obviously and publicly being perpetrated on African-Americans in Alabama (and elsewhere); two, the spiritual leaders in Alabama communities, the churches and their clergy leadership, were either silent or indifferent to the plight of those who were seeking simple social justice. "God, where are you," Satrapi cries out on page 17. God did not come to visit her that night, and in jail, King was crying out to religious leaders to be more God-like.
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour," he wrote, but in almost every case where he offers a hopeful phrase, he tempers it with the reality of how the church has acted up until that moment. He protests as much as he does put forward positive pronouncements. For example, he rakes today's clergy through the coals of their own indifference when he says that once upon a time "the church was very powerful...when early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed."
He noted that early Christians were "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators," but in modern times, the contemporary church is "a week, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound." That said, he believed that "The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."
This is a very strong attack on the church by King through his Letter. Calling the church a potential "social club" - though he was exactly right to do so, because in many cases then, and now, churchgoers are just doing the social thing to keep up "with the Joneses" - is very strong language, going further than actually challenging the church, but in fact blasting it with vigorous rhetoric.
In his book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," author S. Jonathan Bass writes that the Letter "evolved out of a conscious public relations ploy designed by movement strategists." Bass writes that King and his colleagues had "for months" debated how best to criticize the southern white church for not embracing race reform," and this letter from the clergy gave him the perfect opportunity.
King assumes the voice of St. Paul while accounting for his actions," Bass explains. King in the Letter "constructs a theological debate over the morality of just and unjust laws," and then King rejects unjust laws and through his sharp narrative he condemns the south's "white clergy for upholding them and by extension a racist and immoral society."
Long after the letter was released to the public (and later was published in King's book Why We Can't Wait), the white clergymen "found themselves the targets of co-religionists who unfairly singled them out in a similar fashion."
Bass's book follows those eight clergymen in the months following the release of King's letter, and writes in his book that the eight "confronted a community torn asunder by the racial disturbances and watched their national reputations succumb to bigoted stereotypes." All eight of the men "felt resentment" toward King for what he wrote to them in that Letter.
And even though in the Letter, King said, "I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I hope that circumstances will soon make it possible…
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