This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest in Birmingham, Alabama — one of 29 times the Civil Rights leader was jailed in the course of coordinating protests, sit-ins and other such acts of civil disobedience before his 1968 assassination.
The Birmingham arrest, though, on April 12, 1963 — he’d violated an anti-protest injunction in what he described as “a faith act” — became particularly significant historically because of what King did while jailed: he composed a letter from his prison cell in response to criticism from eight white church leaders who’d described him as an “outside agitator.”
The Birmingham clergymen, writing in an open letter in a local newspaper, said King’s resistance and protest strategies in the South’s most segregated city were “unwise and untimely.”
His response, which came to be known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” became one of the classic documents of “the Movement” and is still published and read widely today. On Sunday, a group of 10 Chatham County pastors — some Black, some white — will participate in a reading of the letter in its entirety.
The reading, set for 5 p.m. via Zoom, is being presented by the Community Remembrance Coalition – Chatham and Chatham’s two NAACP branches in conjunction with the Chatham Community Library.
“As Dr. King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” CRC-C and East Chatham NAACP President Mary Nettles said. “It was a call to engage in nonviolence direct action. The Birmingham letter was written to all clergymen, Black and white. The insight of ministers is valued by many local citizens. The community needs to know if they feel things have changed in the last 60 years.”
King’s 7,000-word letter is a defense of his policy and practice of non-violent resistance as he fought to end segregation and the Jim Crow practices of the time, suggesting that unjust laws can’t be considered laws at all. Written on scraps of paper while he was isolated in his cell, King’s missive provides a passionate defense of his tactics — particularly those in the “Birmingham Campaign,” a series of actions designed to put moral pressure on the city’s merchants during a busy Easter season to help end segregation practices.
“Never before have I written so long a letter,” King penned. “I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”
In the letter, King explained that his strategies — nonviolent, but direct — were intended to create crisis situations where inequality and unfairness existed. His hope was that resultant conversations and negotiations could help create change.
Change, he explained, that was far overdue.
King’s words, written six decades ago, are still relevant today. For many, its subject serves as a grim reminder of how far U.S. society still has to go to achieve real equity.
Chatham County pastor Dr. Mark Royster, one of the pastors who will recite a portion of King’s letter, said it was an attempt to respond to the concerns of the Birmingham pastors. But Royster said King ultimately stated he was disappointed in the church as an organization for its passiveness during the Civil Rights movement.
The Haw River Baptist Church pastor said King emphasized the importance of the church’s role in the fight for equality and justice, especially as King believed the church had an obligation to have an active role in the Civil Rights Movement.
“The church in and of itself has been the catalyst for justice as it relates to freedom,” Royster said. “Jesus dealt with justice … If you look at what his mission was, he said, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach the gospel, to set the captives free,’ and all of those people are the disenfranchised … if you say you are Christian, then you should be following the example of Jesus Christ, and he dealt with injustice of individuals.”
Mt. Sinai AME Church Pastor Shontea Smith also felt King’s disappointment in the church in his writing, saying she felt the letter served as “a call to action.”
“Later on, he just starts to address poverty in general, and the role that the church should play, particularly as Jesus was an advocate for those who were oppressed in his community,” Smith said. “It’s a call for us to stand up on behalf of those who are being oppressed.”
When Smith reads the letter today, she feels the issues addressed are just as prevalent as they were in 1963.
“I think it’s sad that we still have to remember these words because things have not really changed,” she said. “Once you get into the nitty gritty, you realize that we’re not past racial civil rights. All these things are very much relevant, and we need to organize and operate as a community more than ever.”
Pittsboro Presbyterian Church Pastor Rev. Evan Harrison will also be participating in Sunday’s reading of the letter. He said while racism isn’t as overt as it once was in 1963, there are still systems built off of those beliefs he said American society needs to address.
“We still see the effects of racism in disparate outcomes in every system — education, wealth, housing, how many people are retained in this community, and more,” Harrison said. “Less and less African Americans are living here and are able to come back to the place they grew up and afford a house here. Even in the Maternity Center ... there are disparate outcomes around birth, health and safety, across races, so racism is still here.”
Harrison said it takes more than being a tolerant person to fight what he believes to be a systemic issue.
“I think a lot of people including myself, used to think, ‘I’m not a racist, so I’m okay,’ and that’s not enough,” he said. “We have to go beyond just not being racist. We have to go and actually look at the systems and do the work to undo the disparate outcomes.”
Nettles said this continuing fight for justice is the reason the CRC-C and Chatham County’s NAACP chapters decided to host an event around the anniversary of the writing of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
“History helps us avoid some of the injustices of the past,” she said. “What is important is to implement the suggestions that Dr. King offers in the Birmingham Letter.”
Chatham County has its own history involving segregation and racial discrimination, but in recent years, government bodies have worked to address the tarnished past. From removing the Confederate monument from in front of the county courthouse to installing signage memorializing the lives of those who were lynched in Chatham, Royster said the county is moving toward making progress.
“I believe there is certainly a movement to embrace all individuals,” he said. “If we don’t keep in the forefront what has gone on in our past, or we don’t remember what has gone on in our past, we are subject to make the same mistakes.”
Smith said while she’s only been a pastor in Chatham County for about a year, she’s witnessed positive changes. Still, she said it’s important to remember segregation and discrimination still exist, even in Chatham.
But it’s not always on the basis of race.
“My concern is probably housing in Chatham County, because when I have my conversations with people that’s where their concern is,” Smith said. “Chatham County is becoming a place that can market itself in an appeal to the wealthy, but the people who are lower income who’ve been in the county for some time feel like they’re being left behind.”
Smith hopes by taking part in Sunday’s reading, people can walk away with ideas of how to make their community a peaceful, equitable place to call home.
“I want people coming in looking for or coming in and leaving looking for ways that we can help to shape Chatham County so that everybody is able to thrive regardless of what neighborhood you live in,” she said.
For Royster, he says he wants people to come into Sunday’s event with an open mind and be receptive to not just the words written by King, but also to joining in the fight for justice and equality.
“We cannot sit back and believe that everything is well,” he said. “Maybe they don’t hear the bad things, maybe they don’t they don’t see the bad situations, but it does not mean that it’s not happening … This event is not just another program … If you expect to be inspired, you will be inspired, so if you come with an open mind and come with the expectation that something good is going to come, it is going to come.”
To register for the event, go to crc-c.org and click on “events” and then “upcoming events.”