Fifty five years ago in the spring of 1963, a brave and fearless black pastor in Birmingham, AL named Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to that city to help organize a campaign against segregated public accommodations. At that time, Birmingham was known as the most staunchly segregationist citiy in the country where that "way of life" was enforced by both local law enforcement led by Eugene "Bull" Connor as well as by the KKK. Yet they were not the only ones to oppose what became known as the Birmingham Campaign. Eight prominent white clergy wrote a letter on April 12 opposing the peaceful demonstrations that were taking place. The following quotes are from their letter:
Excerpts From thePUBLIC STATEMENT BY EIGHT ALABAMA CLERGYMEN
April 12, 1963
We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense," in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.
However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.
In support of those demonstrations, Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to subject himself to arrest. During his week in the local jail, he wrote one of the great pieces of civil rights and church history, "The Letter From the Birmingham City Jail." Here is a link to that letter, and I hope you will take the time to read it this week. What I want to highlight today is the form of racism expressed by those white clergy that downplays the experiences of oppressed people and claims to know how to "help" in better ways than those people developed themselves. This is not the outwardly violent expression of racism practiced by Bull Connor and the KKK. Yet it is racism nonetheless. We see this form of racism today when well meaning white people dismiss the every day experiences of black and brown parents who explain why they need to have "the talk" with their children to try to keep them safe when encountering police. We see this form of racism when movements such as Black Lives Matter are stereotyped as "outside agitators" who are threatening "law and order." Remember that these same terms were used to oppose Dr. King and the civil rights movement of his day. If we are committed to seeing and treating every human being equally as made in the image of God, we are called to not only honor the witness of those who went before us but also to continue the struggle for racial justice in whatever forms it takes in our time. More on Birmingham 1963 in the coming weeks.