Church Leaders Issue Formal Response to Letter from Birmingham Jail

A group of church leaders issued what it claims to be the first and only clergy response to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. – which includes leaders from Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal, Orthodox and evangelical churches – said in a one-page letter that though virtually all church bodies have made formal statements against racism, many have failed to go beyond "spoken commitments."

"Too often we have elected to be comfortable rather than prophetic. Too often we have chosen not to see the evidence of a racism that is less overt but still permeates our national life in corrosive ways," they lamented.

The letter was issued Friday, at the conclusion of a four-day meeting in Birmingham, where CCT leaders examined the issue of domestic poverty through the lens of racism.

The leaders expressed "profound gratitude" to those who led the civil rights movement and helped move the country "closer to God's justice."

At the same time, they recognized "that some of us have not progressed far enough beyond the initial message from the Birmingham clergy."

In April 1963, a group of eight white Alabama clergymen endorsed a statement contending that racial matters should be pursued in the courts rather than on the streets. Though they agreed that rights were being denied to the black community, they said demonstrations on the streets were "unwise and untimely" and urged African-Americans to withdraw from them.

In response, King wrote a long letter after being arrested for leading a nonviolent protest in Birmingham.

He wrote, "It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

"I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

He also explained his reasons for employing a nonviolent approach. "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

CCT leaders affirmed that King's letter speaks powerfully today as it did more than four decades ago.

While remembering a window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that depicts a Christ figure with one hand rejecting injustice and the other extending forgiveness, CCT leaders said they are renewing their struggle to end racism.

They have urged churches throughout the country to make that same commitment by first rereading the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

CCT was formed in 2007 and claims to be "the broadest Christian fellowship in the country" with 36 national communions as well as six national organizations, including World Vision and American Bible Society.