Lessons from A Birmingham Jail

Uncategorized Jan 18, 2021

This morning, I re-read Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Each time I read it, I find some new learning in it.  (If you haven’t set aside time to read it yet, I encourage you to do that this MLK day. You can read the full text here) 

With this reading, I found myself drawn to the last two pages of his letter.  I was struck by three ways in which Dr. King simultaneously defended his position powerfully and sought to persuade his adversaries. Today, as we honor him, I want to share with you the three lessons I took from this reading of his letter and how we might apply them to our modern struggle. 

Lesson 1:  Lean into criticism and use your detractor’s words to reframe the argument. 

Dr. King’s letter was originally written on the margins of a newspaper. 

Following King and Abernathy’s direct action in Birmingham, white faith leaders of eight Southern congregations penned an open letter ito the Birmingham News calling for "unity" and decrying King’s tactics. 

In his response to the letter, Dr. King shared his initial disappointment that fellow faith leaders labeled him an extremist. “At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.” But after reflecting on his moderate position and the many varied responses in the Black community, from acquiescence to militancy, he instead embraced the language and reframed what it means to be extreme.  Dr. King wrote, 

But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice? -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."

I often use this approach when I am discussing social justice with those that feel that the struggle for equality is somehow not patriotic. I reframe their words - patriotism, protestor, even law and order - in the context of my moral fight. “Will you join me as I work toward a greater America? An America where we realize the founding fathers’ goal of life, liberty and justice for ALL?” 

As you have conversations with those that think differently, try using the language that they are most familiar with to bridge gaps and disrupt fixed attachment to particular words and phrases. Sometimes using the same words with a different meaning, can prompt new thinking.   

Lesson 2: Assume moral virtue in order to move into spaces of agreement.

Near the close of the letter, Dr. King expressed his disappointment that the authors commended the police. But rather than responding to the argument head on and expressed a dramatic difference of opinion he suggested that had they had all the facts, they would not have commended their actions. He said,

“But before closing, I am impelled to mention one other point in your statement that troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I don't believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don't believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys, if you would observe them, as they did on two occasions, refusing to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.”

This powerful technique allows those you seek to persuade some ego cover and the ability to change their minds.  As you have conversations in modern context, rather than arguing whether the police are good or bad, whether actions are moral or immoral - try sharing details in such a way that gently assumes that the other person doesn’t have all of the information that you have.  “I don’t believe that you would feel that way if you’d seen the disdain and cruelty I have in police interactions.” Or “I think I’d feel similarly if I’d had only positive interactions with the police that inspire trust. But I believe that if you’d seen what I've seen, you’d be more hesitant to call the police.” 

Lesson 3:  Offer a bridge.

The goal of a more equitable and just society is progress. And offering those who are yet to come along on the antiracist journey a path is part of our goal.  The way that Dr. King deftly closed his letter offered brotherhood and kinship aligned with his moral goal. He closed, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.” Not yours always. Yours truly. Or even yours in Christ Jesus. But Yours for the Cause of Peace and Brotherhood. It was a closing that’s hard to decline, a goal that’s at the core of all major faiths.

As you have conversations with those that have different views, invite them into relationship and learning. Invite them to join us in our fight for equity. It takes MANY invitations for most people before they change their own minds. But yours might be the invitation that they’ve been waiting for.

With this reading, I recognized anew the need to stand tall in our truth AND reach people in ways that allow them to change and grow as antiracists. We must recognize the humanity in those who are yet to come along the antiracist journey and do the hard work of modeling the persuasive techniques of Dr. King.

Not only should we communicate with kindness, dexterity and care because it’s the right way to do the work. We should do it because it's the most effective way to do the work. And that, my friends, is the unfinished work of Dr. King that I hope you'll take up with me. 

Yours for the cause of peace and personhood,



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