“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Martin Luther King Jr. writes these famous words in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 16, 1963, roughly five years before he is assassinated. These words echo as true today as they did in his day.
One cannot speak about prejudice without speaking of the life and influence of Martin Luther King Jr. Both a minister and civil rights activist, he fights racism and segregation through nonviolent means and receives a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his efforts. Posthumously, he is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest awards U.S. citizens can achieve. Countless books are written about him, streets and schools are named after him, monuments depicting him stand throughout our nation, and he is one of the few Americans commemorated by a national holiday.
Perhaps most well-known for his “I Have A Dream” speech, King also organized groups, marches, and campaigns to protest racial injustice. One such protest resulted in one of America’s most famous letters – King’s letter from Birmingham city jail.
The Letter from Birmingham Jail
In April 1963, King and other leaders organize a nonviolent protest in Birmingham, Alabama, to speak out against the racism and segregation occurring in the city. After a week of marches, sit-ins, and other demonstrations, a local judge files an injunction against the protests. King, along with other leaders, disobey the ruling and continue to protest the racial issues facing Birmingham. Consequently, King and others are arrested and jailed.
In his cell, King pens his famous letter in response to the newspaper reporting on the protests. By studying his letter, and looking at it in light of God’s Word, we can uncover some principles to help us address injustice and prejudice through nonviolent means in our own time.
15 Biblical Principles in
MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail
Confront injustice and prejudice everywhere.
MLK wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. … Just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.”
The Bible says: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17).
Seek unity and peace everywhere.
MLK wrote: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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 Bible says: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts … there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 25–26).
State the truth about the current state of the situation.
MLK wrote: “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts.”
The Bible says: “‘Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,’ declares the Lord” (Zechariah 8:16–17).
Recognize the difference between just and unjust.
MLK wrote: “There are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. … To put it in the terms of Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
The Bible says: “You are righteous, Lord, and Your judgments are just” (Psalm 119:137 HCSB).
Recognize that prejudiced behavior is sinful.
MLK wrote: “So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.”
The Bible says: “If you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:9).
Realize how the gospel affects racial relationships.
MLK wrote: “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with.’”
The Bible says: “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. … Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death” (Ephesians 2:14–16 NLT).
Seek to understand and address root causes.
MLK wrote: “I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
The Bible says: “The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; and with all your acquiring, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7 NASB).
Expect and prepare for resistance and trials.
MLK wrote: “So we decided to go through a process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?’”
The Bible says: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
Don’t be afraid of tension.
MLK wrote: “I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. … We must see the need … to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
The Bible says: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
Find constructive ways of handling your emotions.
MLK wrote: “I have not said to my people, ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.”
The Bible says: “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26 ESV).
MLK wrote about human progress: “It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. … Injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.
The Bible says: “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).
Don’t seek violence as an answer.
MLK wrote: ““We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. … It is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.”
The Bible says: “I have kept myself from the ways of the violent through what your lips have commanded” (Psalm 17:4).
Be willing to give up your privileges in order to seek peace.
MLK wrote: “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”
The Bible says: “Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:3–8 NLT).
Give honor where it is due.
MLK wrote: “Each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand this past Sunday in welcoming Negroes to your Baptist Church. … I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Springhill College …”
The Bible says: “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes … if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:7).
Seek the way of love.
MLK wrote: “We need not follow the do-nothingism of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. There is a more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest.”
The Bible says: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4–6).
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is as relevant today as it was in his time, not just because prejudice continues today but because his letter is soaked in biblical truth. King reminds us that fighting prejudice is a difficult battle, but a battle that can be won through persistent, nonviolent efforts which are grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the Word of God.
“For the word of God will never fail.”
(Luke 1:37 NLT)
Source: Martin Luther King Jr. “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” August 1963, printed in The Atlantic Monthly, August 1963 as “The Negro Is Your Brother,” vol. 212, no. 2, 78–88, http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/letter_birmingham_jail.pdf