Reflections on Holy Week and Reading Dr. king’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"


On Tuesday, April 16, a strong and chilly wind blew across the Boston Common and Downtown Crossing. Notre Dame Cathedral was still smoldering. The Boston Public Schools were still facing a $15 million budget gap. And thirty-three people, about average for a typical day, lost their lives to gun violence in the United States. For community organizers and people who hunger for justice and strive for kingdom-building, it could be a discouraging day.

And yet, the sun was shining brightly, and the trees were starting to bloom. On City Hall Plaza, a flag with the image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flapped in the breeze as several hundred people gathered to read aloud and listen attentively to his "Letter from A Birmingham Jail." On the 55th anniversary of its writing, King's words delivered the reassurance and relief that truth (and springtime) can bring.

Dr. King's message was a clarion call then and now. The letter was a response to white, Protestant ministers who had criticized Dr. King, saying that he and the movement going too fast and using tactics that were too direct, Dr. King challenged them (and us) saying he was "compelled to carry the gospel of freedom." He could no longer "sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned by what happens in Birmingham." He was, and we are, "cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states."

As a who's who of Boston leaders -- former Mayor Ray Flynn (with two more generations of the Flynn family), City Councilors, State Senators and Representatives, ministers and rabbis, community activists, labor leaders, teens, and residents of neighborhoods across the city -- each read two or three sentences each, the power of Dr. King's words from 1965 in Alabama became more and more relevant for 2019 in Boston. "The ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country," he said before there were iPhones recording every incident. We heard again Dr. King's lament of the "unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches" in a week when the recent destruction, due to hate-fueled arson, of three black churches in Louisiana was being reported.

The news can be discouraging, and the winds of ongoing injustice can push us off balance. Even the church can sometimes feel, as Dr. King put it, like "a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound." But there is hope! Organized religion can and should "recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church...and join as active partners in the struggle for freedom." For those of us who call ourselves Christian, those words, read aloud on a public plaza, felt like a steady support. I felt a new energy for myself and sense of possibility for our city and country.

Big thanks to Boston Mountaintop for organizing this event. And as we walk these steps of Holy Week, may we all re-read Dr. King's "Letter From A Birmingham Jail." May we recommit ourselves to being "nonviolent gadflies" making Christ's vision of beloved community a reality. Onward to that Easter moment!

Watch the video from the public reading and attend Part II of the reading (flyer below).

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Flyer text:

The Letter from the Birmingham Jail: The 55th Anniversary, A Public Reading in Boston. PART II

In the spring of 1964 our nation was embroiled in a struggle to save the soul of America. We were seeking the Beloved Community, the achievement of the vision that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had enunciated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a year earlier. In the middle of the anti-racism campaign in Birmingham, Alabama in 1964, Rev. King was arrested. He was also assailed by local clergy who rejected his presence in Birmingham, calling King an outside agitator whose activism in their city was unwise and untimely.

King’s response was the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which instantly became one of our nation’s most important civic and theological statements on race and citizens.

We will be reading this document once again at Down Home Delivery, April 24th, 2019. We would like for you to join us as a reader or as an observer. You are welcomed!