To Redeem the Soul of America

AT TIMES IT SEEMS VERY HARD to realize that half a century has passed since my late wife, Rosemarie, and I were in Birmingham, Ala., living out a part of our years of service as representatives of the Mennonite churches of America to the Southern freedom movement—that historic black-led struggle for the expansion of democracy in America (inadequately labeled "the civil rights movement").

It was in the midst of those powerful days, in the late winter and early springtime of 1963, when our extraordinary people's movement was spreading to dozens of communities across the South, with some important reverberations in the North, and across the world as well. Usually initiated by courageous home-grown black leaders such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham and Victoria Gray of Palmers Crossing, Miss., the determined local groups often called upon national or South-wide organizations to help them in their campaigns.

Late in 1961, Shuttlesworth, who was part of the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), asked Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC to come help the Birmingham movement. It faced a level of continuing white terrorism that led the black community to call their city "Bombingham," referring, of course, to the deadly violence they encountered whenever they attempted to challenge the white segregationist powers who were determined to keep black people in a submissive, separate, and dominated role.

When King and SCLC decided to respond to Shuttlesworth and move onto the Birmingham scene, Rosemarie and I were already friends and co-workers with Martin and Coretta, and King asked us to come participate in the struggle for the transformation of Birmingham. So we were present and in the line of marchers when King, his co-worker Ralph Abernathy, and others were arrested in early April 1963.

When the extraordinary and prophetic handwritten "Letter from Birmingham Jail" began to emerge surreptitiously in the hands of King's lawyers, we were able to share some of the excitement that surrounded its appearance, page by page, first around the edges of The Birmingham News, then on sheet after sheet from smuggled pads of paper.

Now in the spring of 2013—exactly 50 years after the letter was written—it is hard to resist the temptation to respond when my friends and co-workers of a younger generation ask about the meaning of the message for 1963, as well as its possible continuing message for this time and place.

From the moment we began to read the original document, Rosemarie and I knew that one of Martin's clearest intentions was to provide an unequivocal response to the white ministers whose recent public letter had questioned the decision that he and SCLC had made to come to Birmingham. These "moderate" white religious leaders had essentially called King and his organization "outside agitators" whose presence in Birmingham was "unwise and untimely."

It is likely that these pastors did not know or remember that SCLC had declared in its founding mission statement that "We have come to redeem the soul of America." King certainly knew this and would never forget it. So he took the opportunity to state very clearly in his letter, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."

Pressing even further, he boldly announced, "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham."

Then, speaking as the pastor, prophet, and philosophical theologian that he was, King reminded his fellow ministers that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That was the context in which King expressed his "deep disappointment" with the Christian churches that should have been standing at the side of the oppressed if they were serious about following Jesus.

And what would King be saying to his beloved churches today?

His deeply loving critique certainly would not be confined to the white churches. His insistence on speaking for the oppressed, neglected, and beaten up members of our society would surely lead him to ask, for instance, this important question: How can we religious people of every color hide out in our suburbs and newly gentrified, safe urban spaces when our children throughout the cities of America are reacting to our neglect and inattention by destroying themselves in all the ways our society makes available to its lost children?

And, of course, King would remind us that "injustice anywhere" now surely includes all the places where our deadly drones are creating havoc with the innocent lives of other human beings of all ages, where torture is again an American export and our rates of deportation are as high as they've ever been—all this threatening the best teachings of our own democracy.

Today, with only slight changes, the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" would surely be addressed to the White House—and King's loving disappointment would certainly be even deeper.

Of course, if it is carefully examined, the 2013 version of the letter may well be addressed to all of us—"We, the people." Could it be that after half a century, we—especially we the rising new majority—must claim every letter from jail as addressed to us? And then, like King and his jailed companions, we must come out and go to work to redeem the soul of America. Are we ready?

To add the words of our late sister June Jordan to the words of King, it may well be that "we are the ones we have been waiting for"—that Fannie Lou Hamer and Fred Shuttlesworth and Rosa Parks and Viola Liuzzo and Amzie Moore and Mickey Schwerner have been working for—along with all our children and all our ancestors, including Ancestor Jesus.

Isn't that what King was saying during his last months when he kept repeating, "America, you must be born again"?

Vincent G. Harding, author of Hope and History and There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, is a Sojourners contributing editor.

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