Sixty years later, King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ resonates in Maine
January 15 – On April 16, 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a letter.
He had been arrested four days earlier for defying a court order banning protests in Birmingham, Alabama. From his prison cell, he wrote to eight white religious leaders who had condemned public civil rights demonstrations. He condemned the silence of white moderates, arguing that racial violence required a more urgent response than these clergymen had advised.
Sixty years have passed, but that message is still true for Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill. He is executive director of the BTS Center, a Maine non-profit organization that offers theological programs. He rereads the letter each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and reflects on its call to be braver than cautious.
“We like to think that racism is the horrible thing other people do, the blatant kind of white supremacist violence,” he said. “But in the letter, Dr. King really picks out the nuances and reminds us that racism is the violence of silence.”
This year, the Maine Council of Churches and the BTS Center selected the letter from Birmingham Jail for an online reading to mark the holiday. King’s words will be read by eight people from Maine’s faith and social justice communities. For the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, four of the readers reflected on passages they will recite during Monday’s event and the letter’s relevance to the modern world. These passages and readers’ comments are shown here.
Marpheen Chann, 31, is a Portland activist and author of a biography entitled Moon in Fulfillment: A Modern Coming-of-Age Story. He works as the Community Impact Manager for the Good Shepherd Food Bank and is a member of a number of local boards and organizations including the Portland Planning Board. His mother came to Maine as a refugee from Cambodia, and he is President of Khmer Maine, a grassroots organization that serves the state’s Cambodian community.
They deplore the demonstrations in Birmingham. But unfortunately, your statement does not express similar concerns about the conditions that led to the demonstrations. I’m sure none of you want to settle for the superficial kind of social analysis that only deals with effects and doesn’t deal with the deeper causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure has left the Negro community with no alternative.
Chann said the letter reminded him of more recent protests — when a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 or as anti-Asian hate crimes surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. He thought of the people who seemed more concerned about the protests themselves than about the racism and the trauma they had unleashed.
“In America, we want to do the fast, we want to do the easy, we want to get it out of the way, we want to target the low-hanging fruit and the tokenized items and call it good. But I think that’s the really important thing that Dr. King in this letter says we need to go deeper and examine ourselves deeper.
Dustin Ward, 35, is an advocate for racial justice and reconciliation at It Is Time… LLC. He founded the company hoping to work with organizations and individuals to bring about change and end systemic racism. Born in Florida, adopted as a baby and raised in Presque Isle. He now resides in New Gloucester, where he is the first black man to sit on the select board.
John Bunyan: “I’ll be in prison ’til the end of my days before I turn my conscience into hell.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We take for granted these truths, that all men are created equal…” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be hate extremists or love extremists? Will we be extremists for upholding wrong or for extending justice?
Ward said he heard about King every year at school during Black History Month, but realized his history class hadn’t covered the true extent of the civil rights movement when a high school teacher screened a film about Malcolm X.
“It made me realize there was more about who I am as a black person and civil rights in this country that I wasn’t aware of. I wanted to learn more.”
Ward earned a master’s degree in theology and was pastoring in Maine in 2020 when a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. He wrote a call to action hoping his community would rally behind him, but he said he received backlash instead. He eventually decided to leave the service and started his business later that year. King’s words to his clergy colleagues spoke to Ward’s modern experience.
“The words he wrote are an attempt to bring to light what I have seen consistently in ministry, which is that white clergy sometimes believe everything is fine. … We tried to avoid the subject or not talk about it, a way of saying we solved it. It’s traumatic and scary. I wanted to talk about it, we needed to talk about it, and so often there was this desire to keep quiet about it.”
“I like the opportunity to read this letter because you can put each word in its current context and say, ‘We’re still dealing with this.'”
Andie Giraso, 16, is a junior at Scarborough High School and the president of its civil rights club. Born and raised in Rwanda, she moved to Maine six years ago.
We know from painful experience that liberty is never freely given by the oppressor; it must be demanded of the oppressed. In all honesty, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ from the perspective of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
Giraso said: “Growing up, racism never crossed my mind. I was constantly surrounded by people who looked and sounded like me. It wasn’t until I set foot in America that I witnessed the racial injustice that plagues our people.
“It is very important that we acknowledge the existence of racism in today’s society, rather than ignoring it and pretending that it no longer exists. So I speak out for those who are being silenced in my community, and I hope to continue that work after I graduate high school.
“I have dr. Read King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ for the first time during my freshman year of high school. My first reaction to the letter was hope. It gave me hope knowing that Dr was a time when racism and segregation were so normal. It gave me the confidence to believe that we (this generation) can and will make a difference. What struck me most was his statement: “Liberty is never freely given by the oppressor; it must be demanded of the oppressed.’ That means if we want change, we have to demand it.”
Shirley Hager, 70, was raised in segregated North Carolina and was in high school when King was murdered. She now resides in Chesterville and is a retired Associate Professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
She is also one of the authors of a book published last year called The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations. Hager, who is white, supports Wabanaki’s efforts for Maine sovereignty. She re-read Letter from Birmingham Jail in preparation for Monday’s event and was struck by the parallels to that effort.
My friends, I must tell you that without determined legal and non-violent pressure, we have not made any progress on civil rights. Unfortunately, it is a historical fact that privileged groups rarely give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals can see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust attitude; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
“‘Groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.’ I think that’s what we’re seeing: we’re seeing individuals being transformed on this issue, and that includes individual legislators, but when it comes to the tipping point where the state is actually using some of its power in favor of something gives up, that’s much bigger, we’ve come up short. Because privileged groups rarely relinquish their power. It’s hard to change systems, but that’s what we have to do.”