National Edition

50 years later: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' still resonates

Published: Sunday, April 14 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

He then castigates the modern church itself for losing the powerful influence it possessed in its first century. "Things are different now," King wrote. "So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are."

King concludes in a hopeful tone that he will meet the clergymen under better circumstances: "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 their scintillating beauty."

A broader audience

But King and his fellow clergymen never did meet. In fact, none of them received a personally addressed copy of the letter, according to historian S. Jonathan Bass, whose book, "Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the 'Letter from Birmingham Jail,'" examines the origins and aftermath of the famous letter.

Bass, citing interviews with those involved in the production of the letter, wrote that the composing of the letter and the circumstances surrounding it were part of a carefully planned public relations campaign to reach a larger audience than just the religious leaders of Birmingham.

After King was released from jail, he and his staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference refined and edited the letter, which was dated April 16 but sent out as a press release in the first two weeks of May. Civil rights leaders, however, promoted a more intriguing story about a letter written from the despondent confines of jail.

"The idea that King had written this great, refined work of polished prose in a period of less than 72 hours, on or before April 16, 1963, was a key part of the letter's appeal for the press and public," Bass wrote.

But while civil rights leaders employed some public relations savvy to get the letter out into the hands of the media, King's skillful use of religious language and metaphor, logic and reason, and emotion has given the letter broad appeal over the succeeding years.

"He could have cited chapter and verse and called it a day, but he needed the letter to work on multiple levels and not exclusively from the Christian tradition," Best said. "So, not to undermine the religious force at its core, but what I find is so beautiful about the letter is that it is firing on a number of levels, and that may be why it has such resonance across the globe."

While the letter has found relevance in politics and other secular disciplines, Bass explained that its content confirms the civil rights movement was at its core a religious awakening that resulted in a political solution to racial discrimination.

He said King was the national leader, but the troops putting their lives in danger were the local black churchgoers inspired by their faith. "What’s going to be in their minds and hearts? 'I am going to stare down police dogs and take the full brunt of fire hoses because I am an enlightened secular liberal'?" Bass said. "They are going to say, 'This is God’s calling in my life, I am a follower of Jesus Christ and I am doing this because God is calling me to do this.'"

Best and Bass said the letter and the movement itself can't be looked at through a simple single lens but through a complex combination of multiple lenses to understand the full meaning and the truths the letter reveals.

A catalyst for change

With his sights on the ministry, when Davis first read the letter in college he detected something beyond King's expert use of rhetoric. "I had gone to seminary for a couple of years, and I think that gave me a different perspective of the letter" than many of his classmates, said the longtime pastor of Calvary Baptist.

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