In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote what has become one of the iconic pieces of the modern civil rights movement - The Letter From the Birmingham City Jail. Not as well known is the piece to which Dr. King’s powerful letter was the response. Eight prominent white clergymen including Episcopal bishops and, Methodist bishops among several others published a letter in support of the goal of desegregation but critical of the campaign of non-violent direct action. They appealed to “law and order” without recognizing that the status quo maintained by that law and order was the source of racial injustice and oppression. Here are some of their words:
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…Just as we formerly pointed out that "hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions," we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham .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.
As well intentioned as they were, these Christian leaders and the majority of white Christians they represented were on the wrong side of history. This continues to be instructive for our day and time. Appeals to maintain” law and order” in ways that dehumanize and oppress people are contrary to the justice that God desires for all people. It also discounts the lives and stories of those impacted by injustice that consistently favors the status quo. We have seen this at work on the southern border of our country, on the streets of our cities, and in our criminal justice system. As followers of Jesus, we have the call and responsibility to discern and resist when justice is inconsistent with our systems of “law and order.” The events in Birmingham in 1963 challenge us to ask the hard question of whether or not we are on the right side of history from the perspective of God’s justice and love.