Books for a Political Season: Duane W.H. Arnold
Books for a Political Season
In 2022, there are only two surviving witnesses to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on 4 April 1968. One is Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, and former UN ambassador. The other is Jesse Jackson. Jackson still remembers the sound of the gunshot and the sight of blood. He once told me that he would carry those memories to his grave. As he has often said in recalling the events at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, “Every time I think about it, it’s like pulling a scab off a sore. It’s a hurtful, painful thought: that a man of love is killed by hate; that a man of peace should be killed by violence; a man who cared is killed by the careless.”
Yet, as the decades have passed, with the first generation of civil rights activists passing with them, it is easy to invoke the image of the monumental Martin Luther King, similar to that of his image on the Mall in Washington, DC. It becomes harder to conjure the image of a very young Baptist pastor, who was decidedly “bookish” and attracted to the academic life producing a PhD dissertation on the theology of Paul Tillich and who entered the civil rights movement with some degree of trepidation, initially not seeking out a leadership role.
By 1963 King had already spent eight years in the civil rights movement. In the Birmingham campaign, King faced off against Bull Conner, an avowed segregationist. Early in the campaign, King was arrested, his 13th arrest. Writing from his cell, he produced ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’. The small book was inspired by a newspaper article that had appeared, as a ‘Call to Unity’ signed by eight white Alabama clergyman, denouncing King and his methods. The initial article and King’s response were theological as much as social or political. Indeed, any outright appeal to politics is missing.
Selections From: ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’
“Segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”
“Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
“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.”
“Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter 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 vocal sanction of things as they are.”
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The words written in that Birmingham jail cell, are as relevant today as they were almost 60 years ago. This is a book that is worth reading for yourself…
Another excellent resource for those who don’t understand the roots of the 60s civil rights era. I lived near two housing projects where most of the residents were African-American. We had some violence in our neighborhood after King’s assassination, but most of the response was visible grief. I did a lot of reading about Dr. King after his death, and then learned about Jim Crow laws. It gave my pre-teen soul a jolt to make sure I treated people fairly and wisely. I had friends of many different skin colors/ethnic backgrounds, but I didn’t realize that some people were not treated well because of their color. We just all played together and were in and out of each others’ houses. I had to get much wiser as I got older. (Still working on the wisdom, by the way).
Many thanks! As I reread the book, I was shocked how relevant it is to the discussions of race that we are undertaking at present… We should be so much farther along than we are…
Thanks. Well-written, as usual.
Many thanks, we do what we can!😁
Ouch. We spent a unit studying LFTBJ in 10th grade English. Part of it was to educate us on history (a mostly all white rural school), but it was also to study how perfect King’s writing techniques were, and to identify and emulate them.
The New Victor
I’ve always thought that he is similar in his writing style to Churchill, with a combination of long and short sentences…
King was a brilliant orator and excellent writer–complimentary skills in my opinion–but it was his passion and vision that gave wind to his sails; both of which were born of his roots in the gospel. Thanks for your attention to this piece & its author.
Well said, filistine! ! !
To this day from 10th grade English what sticks in my mind is “parallel construction.” And that MLK wrote the letter in the margins of newspapers. Wow.
He never left the pulpit behind…