Reflections on King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

As we celebrate the birthday, life, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, I have seen several references to his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.  I had never taken the time to read it.  Today, I did.

It is important to note that the context of this letter was to address harsh criticism from eight white local clergymen for his leadership in non-violent protests against segregation and police brutality. 

Here are some quotes that got my attention and my heart and some brief reflections in parentheses:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” (Ministry of presence. I need to be intentional to be with those who are suffering.)

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Unlike many other Christians that I know, my heart mind is not wired that way. Out of sight; out of mind. I don’t know why, but I rarely am emotionally impacted by suffering that is happening far away. Perhaps that needs to change.)

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.” (This is relevant to today, but I struggle with this.  The extreme violence of last summer’s riots were counterproductive in addressing legitimate issues of police brutality and racial injustice. Dr. King’s non-violent direct action seemed to get more results.)

“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging facts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.'” (I believe this country has come a long way since this letter was written, but there is still much work to be done. I truly want to understand the pain of my fellow citizens of color. I do want to be part of the solution. I want to see Dr. King’s dream become a reality in my lifetime.)

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice. . . Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (Ouch!  Lord, help me be more committed to justice than things remaining the same where there needs to be change.)

“Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must opened with all its pus-lowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” (I want to understand the real concerns of racial injustice that exist today. It is not obvious to me. It know that racism is not as systemic as it was in the 1960’s, but I also know there are still things that need to be addressed today.)

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.  We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”  (I have not been silent on these issues, but I have not said nearly enough.)

“I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church.  I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies.  Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many other have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”  (This was painful to read.  The church universal should have been the church united on the issue of racial injustice from the start.  Shame on any church today that opposes or is silent on this issue.  The church should be a model of racial reconciliation.)

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.” (Amen!)

This was a powerfully written letter.  My brother, Dr. King was God’s chosen instrument to speak out and take action to oppose segregation and racial injustice.  May God raise up others who can speak out in such an articulate manner today. 

May I be part of this critical and righteous cause for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who died for every man and woman of every race and color, and who brings us hope, healing, and restoration.

(Note: I invite you to read other articles I wrote on this topic: an article from February 2019 on diversity in the workplace inspired by the film, “Hidden Figures”, my review of Benjamin Watson’s book, Under My Skin from November 2019, and an article from November 2020 on building your team by showing dignity and respect.)

About the author:


Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 100 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

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