A Letter from Jail

On days like today, I miss teaching high school English.  I loved analyzing the rhetoric of inauguration speeches with my AP students, comparing the newest one with those of Kennedy or Lincoln.

I especially miss teaching English on MLK day.  I consider Martin Luther King, Jr. one of the greatest orators of all time. His choice of words and use of language to clearly communicate his message to all people at all educational levels was a true gift.

I taught “I Have a Dream” a few times, but my favorite King piece was and is “Letter from Birmingham Jail. “

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, with pen and paper.  He’d received a letter from a group of clergymen- pastors – questioning his motive and technique as he fought for freedom.  Their request was that he stay away from Birmingham.

King didn’t often answer critics, but he composed this letter in response to these gentlemen because he felt them to be men of genuine goodwill whose criticisms are sincerely set forth.

King explained to these pastors that…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

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We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

So true.

Below I’ve excerpted a few sections that have caused me to pause and consider my faith, my walk with God, the society in which I love, and my role in this world.  I hope you’ll read each one and reflect on King’s words.


But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. 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 righteousness 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…”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment…


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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. 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.

But 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…


I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. 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.


I could compose an entire blog post on each of these excerpts, but I’d rather you think about King’s words written almost 50 years ago and their relevance today.

 May we never see injustice as acceptable – in ANY country. 

 I pray God always find us as “extremists” as we proclaim the gospel and live  for Him.

Thanks, Martin Luther King, Jr., for these lessons about faith.  We honor you and your passion for love and equality.


  1. Thank you for reminding me of these inspired words. Thank you for challenging us to each pause and reflect.

  2. Revolutionary words! Thank you for this. We need to be extremist’s for love.

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