Birmingham, AL. The date is April 11, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a motel room, room 30 of the Gaston Motel, with several other leaders who were no doubt praying as they faced an enormous decision. “Do we carry through with tomorrow’s non-violent, peaceful protest in downtown Birmingham when the sheriff (Bull Connor) has issued a state-sanctioned order not to march?” There were reasons to march, many reasons to march, especially in the South, and especially in Birmingham, AL. Birmingham was probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States in the 60s. Its ugly record of brutality was widely known. There were more unsolved bombings of black homes and black churches in Birmingham, AL than in any other city in the nation. In fact, Birmingham was known as “Bombingham.” There were good reasons to march!
And march they did. But Bull Conner was waiting on them and they were immediately cuffed and incarcerated. The following Tuesday, April 16, 1963, somebody gives King a copy of the Birmingham News. In the paper was a letter written by several well-known clergymen criticizing King for the march and for the “bad timing” of the march. According to them, he should have “waited.” He wrote this in response:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience (See Letter From a Birmingham Jail for the full text).
Regardless of what you think about Martin Luther King Jr., the battle for racial reconciliation that he fought was a battle that needed to be fought. And it is a battle that we are still fighting today.
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10 (ESV)