On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

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4 mins read

On April 12, 1963, eight Alabama clergymen published an open letter, “A Call for Unity,” in a Birmingham newspaper in response to civil rights protests taking place in the area at the time. In the letter, they took issue with events “directed and led in part by outsiders,” and they urged activists to use the courts if rights were being denied, rather than to organize protests against racial segregation.

The term “outsider” was a thinly-veiled reference to Martin Luther King Jr. who, on that same day, had come to town and was immediately arrested for disobeying an injunction against demonstrating, issued just two days prior.

While in the Birmingham jail, an ally smuggled in a newspaper which contained the statement published by the clergymen. It provoked Dr. King, who began to write a response on the margins of the newspaper, then on scraps of paper, and finally on a pad his attorneys were permitted to bring for him. Parts of his letter were printed that summer and eventually it was published in its entirety, becoming an important text in the Civil Rights movement for generations to come.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King argued that action was necessary to protest unjust laws and that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

In this year’s annual MLK Jr. Day of Service, organized by the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition, I will be joining local clergy members as we take turns reading Dr. King’s “Letter.” You can register here. They are also posting the live reading on the Facebook page of the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition. One of the event’s organizers, Rev. Jim Mitulski, wrote a powerful Guest Perspective for the San Mateo Daily Journal last week, in which he observed:

“In a year that has seen the unvindicated deaths of so many, including the now familiar names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, we can’t observe the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday unless we pause and say their names. If King wrote today, he would say their names, and that of Chinedu Okobi, who died after being hit with a Taser by sheriff deputies on our streets [in Millbrae] just two years ago. He would say Black Lives Matter, and he would remind us of the plight of fellow inmates, who are vulnerable to COVID-19 and unlikely to be vaccinated.” 

This coming week, when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as well as the inauguration of a new president, we should be very concerned about the racial tensions that recently erupted in our nation’s capital. Let’s pray for peace and hope that further bloodshed can be prevented. But let’s also remember that we cannot deal with a problem as long as it remains hidden in the shadows. When it comes out into the open, we can see it for what it is and deal with it accordingly. 

Please join me on Monday as we read from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and in the days ahead as we work together with people of other religions and races to forge a nation in which all of our children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”


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Rabbi Moshe Tom Heyn is a musician, pastoral care professional and spiritual activist who practices and teaches a synthesis of humanism and mysticism. He is also the Spiritual Leader of the Coastside Jewish Community, which is celebrating a spiritual renaissance along the breathtakingly scenic 40-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast just south of San Francisco.

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