On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
One of the first things that struck me was that he was writing because he had been chastised by a fellow clergyman for being an “outside agitator.” Why did this strike me so forcefully? Because I live not terribly far from Ferguson, Mo., and I heard people invoke the “outside agitator” argument myself. And at that time, I didn’t know what to make of it.
That argument goes something like this: “Those protests weren’t organized by people from ___. They were organized by national organizations who shipped people in to stir up trouble.”
I don’t think I had fully realized, until reading MLK’s letter, that “outside agitators” is how the civil rights movement works.
Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a lengthy paragraph in the letter from the Birmingham jail, explaining this. But then he gave the quote above. Here it is, in context.
Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.
-Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail
I have to admit, it was really disheartening to realize that after all this time, despite how much honor is accorded MLK across political divides, we are still using the same arguments that were used to try to shame and discredit him and his work.
The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a breathtakingly beautiful piece which remains every bit as relevant today as it was in 1963. Well worth reading.