Theology & Spirituality

“I Have to Make a Faith Act”: The Story Behind the Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Image credit: Jim Forest, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/12219184015

It is April, 1963, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded and led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is out of funds. [1] Not only is money scarce, it seems like support for the movement among supporters is faltering. In Montgomery, several years prior, tens of thousands had participated in the bus boycott and other actions for over a year, despite bombings, physical attacks, and harassment from law enforcement. Looking back, the movement seemed unstoppable, [2] with God clearly on the side of the protestors. As one participant put it, God spoke from Washington, D.C., through the Supreme Court, to desegregate the buses and put the country on a path towards freedom. 

However, those days seemed gone. Despite some successes due to the bravery of young people in sit-ins and freedom rides—many of whom would go on to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—King’s efforts had largely faltered since Montgomery. He and the SCLC had attempted to lead a large voter registration effort in the South, but at best had found moderate success despite being well funded. And, the last campaign that King had joined in Albany, Georgia in 1961 was seen by both King and the news media as a failure. Though King and many others had protested, endured jail, and attempted to rouse the conscience of the nation, little had changed. Indeed, many in the news media had begun praising Laurie Pritchett, the police chief in Albany, for his “nonviolence” (i.e. not publicly beating and harassing protestors) and his strategic savvy in dealing with the SCLC and the local Albany movement that had invited King. 

In 1962, after being jailed for a third time, King and the SCLC agreed to leave Albany with little to show for their efforts. Yet, the next year King once again decided to launch a major campaign in the South, this time in the notoriously violent Birmingham (it had earned the nickname “Bombingham” because of the frequency of bombing attacks on movement leaders and participants). However, despite a well-organized grassroots organization—the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights—the beginning of the campaign faltered. 

This was partially due to local politics. The initial start date of the campaign needed to be delayed several weeks due to local political elections, which contributed to the fact that by the time the campaign started some who had signed up to protest had rethought their commitment. Additionally, King had developed a reputation in the organizing community, due to Albany, of cutting and running when things got tough, so fewer people were willing to put their bodies or pocketbooks on the line this time around. And, to top it all off, Birmingham officials had obtained a state court injunction against the protests. This meant that anyone who aided King would be breaking both state and local law by protesting, and, since the SCLC had no funds to bail them out, they could be left in jail for months (or years). 

This brings us back to where we started. King had scheduled a large protest prior to the court injunction, but was now being told by advisors that it would be foolhardy at best to continue with the demonstration. If anything, it should continue without King, because his fundraising skills would be needed to raise the money to post bond for the people who would inevitably be thrown in jail. As was his common practice, King listened to his advisors, and then retreated to a room alone to pray. We can’t know for certain what was going through his mind at this time of crisis, but drawing on King’s history of struggle we can make a good guess. 

During a particularly dark moment in the Montgomery boycott, King spoke to the gathered worshippers, but lacked his usual fire. After the meeting, one of the Mothers of the church, Mother Pollard, approached King to determine what was the matter. Despite King’s insistence that all was well, she knew something was amiss. 

“You can’t fool me,” she told him. “I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks is bothering you?” Before he could reply, she said, “I don told you we is with you all the way… But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you. 

Her words, described by James Cone as an “eschatological promise,” were soon reaffirmed in King’s famous “vision in the kitchen.” [3] In the early days of the Montgomery movement, King experienced insomnia—brought on by relentless death threats against himself, his wife Coretta, and their newly born daughter Yoki. So, driven to the kitchen, pursuing coffee and a space to pray, King poured out his weakness and fear to God, and heard a voice respond, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” 

Throughout his life King drew strength from these experiences as he sought to live in service to God. So, when King emerged from his solitary prayer in Birmingham, dressed in overalls rather than his normal suit and ready to go to jail, it is likely these experiences of divine reassurance that he drew on, that gave him the strength, courage, and faith to persist despite the overwhelming odds against him. “I don’t know what will happen,” King said, “I don’t know where the money will come from. But I have to make a faith act.” You likely know the rest of the story: King wrote his now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which drew nationwide support, helping give him and the other activists the resources to continue and ultimately win their fight in Birmingham. 

Looking back, it seems obvious that the “right” side would win the day and segregation would be defeated. But at the time it was anything but clear. Additionally, we must remember that, while the Birmingham campaign was successful, King’s loftier goals were not achieved, and in many ways we have gone backwards as a society since his assassination. Not only this, but at the time of King’s violent death, he was one of the most hated people in America. The mystical theologian Howard Thurman said of King after his assassination, “in him the informed conscience of the country became articulate.” It is perhaps, then, no surprise that King was hated, for we rarely welcome our conscience when it convicts us regarding our deepest sins and failures. 

In closing, I leave you with King’s charge to develop a “though” faith. An “if” faith says, if things go well, then I will love and serve God. However, Christ calls us to a life that will likely lead to suffering and disappointment. For, if we continue to demand that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, it is unlikely we will see our demands come to fruition. Yet, we are called to continue on regardless, with a “though” faith in the God who saves, as King says

There is a ‘though’ faith, though. And the ‘though’ faith says “Though things go wrong; though evil is temporarily triumphant; though sickness comes and the cross looms, nevertheless! I’m gonna believe anyway and I’m gonna have faith anyway; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof, the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Amen.


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David Justice

David Justice

My research focus is the theology and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. I primarily explore the fundamental transformation and, at times, destruction necessary to make the Beloved Community a reality. In making this argument I draw on his rootedness in the Black church and put King into conversation with feminist, Womanist, and decolonial thought. I am currently a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University in Theological Studies and an MA student in Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My wife Mariah and I have two kids who are adorable and love wearing us out. You can find me on social media @DavidtheJust

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