Semper Informanda: Prolegomenon

Martin Luther King Jr.
What Was It Like for Those Who Weren't There?

This is an excerpt from John Piper's "Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian" (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), 24-27.

"Martin Luther King called for freedoms and rights and justice that were long overdue. And he did it with an appeal to historic Christian vision, with amazing rhetorical skill, without condoning violence, and with unprecedented and lasting success. That's why there is a holiday in his honor. One of his writings in particular provides a window on the mid-twentieth-century world of black Americans — 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.'

The place is Birmingham, Alabama. The time is April 11, 1963. I was seventeen years old in Greenville, South Carolina. At the Gaston Motel, Room 30, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and Fred Shuttlesworth decided to lead a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration the next day, Good Friday, against the racial injustices of the city.

As in most Southern cities in those days (including the one I was growing up in 350 miles away) bus seating was segregated; schools, parks, lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains — they were almost all segregated. Some called Birmingham the most segregated city in the country. Its bombings and torchings of black churches and homes had given it the name 'Bombingham' — and 'the Johannesburg of the South.'

There was one catch. The sheriff, Bull Connor, had served Martin Luther King with a state-court injunction that prohibited him and other movement leaders from conducting demonstrations. With a wife and four children back home in Atlanta, King decided to violate the injunction, pursue a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration, and willingly go to jail. On Good Friday, King led his fifty volunteers downtown, up to the police line, came face-to-face with Connor, and knelt down with Ralph Abernathy in prayer. He and all the demonstrators were thrown into paddy wagons and put in jail.

On Tuesday, April 16, King was shown a copy of the Birmingham News, which contained a letter from eight Christian and Jewish clergymen of Alabama (all white), criticizing King for his demonstration. In response, King wrote what has come to be called 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' and which one biographer described as 'the most eloquent and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written.' (Stephen Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, 222)

We need to hear the power and insight with which King spoke to my generation in the sixties—enraging thousands and inspiring thousands. The white clergy had all said he should be more patient, wait, and not demonstrate. He wrote:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;
. . . when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been adver- tised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she’s told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;
. . . when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automo- bile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “Nigger,” your middle name becomes “Boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;
. . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it dif- ficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoid- able impatience. 

To the charge that he was an extremist, he responded like this:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”? Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteous- ness like an ever-flowing stream”? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus”?
Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God”? And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “Thus this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?

. . . he delivered a powerful call to the church, which rings as true today as it did in 1963:

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . . But the judgment of God is upon the church [today] 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 20th century.


That is Martin Luther King's prophetic voice ringing out of the Birmingham jail in 1963."

Read Bloodlines (PDF), click here.
Read all of Martin Luther King's "Letters from Birmingham Jail," click here.

John Piper
Pastor, Bethlehem Baptist Church

Orlando Semper Informanda | Volume 6 Issue 17