Fifty Years Later, Church Leaders Respond to Letter from Birmingham Jail

Fifty years later, Christian Churches Together (CCT) has issued a response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The document was signed by representatives of CCT’s member communions and presented to King’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, at a symposium April 14-15 in Birmingham, Ala.

King’s famous letter on April 16, 1963, was written in response to an open letter from a group of eight clergy–one Catholic priest, six Protestants, and a rabbi–urging him to exercise restraint and call an end to the nonviolent demonstrations.

As far as is known, the CCT document is the first response to the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” CCT issued a short statement two years ago in Birmingham, and committed then to produce this detailed response on the occasion of the 50th anniversary. The full statement is posted at www.brethren.org/birminghamletter .

In the document, CCT calls member churches to repentance and confesses the history of racism within its institutions. “Those of us who lead predominantly white churches confess to our CCT colleagues of other ethnicities that we would prefer to overlook the ways in which we have replayed the role of the ‘white moderates’ who most disappointed Dr. King.” A significant part of the paper is an appendix with separate confessions from the faith families that constitute CCT.

The document elaborates on the key themes of King’s letter and the challenges that face the church today. It also expresses commitments for the future. “We proclaim that, while our context today is different, the call is the same as in 1963–for followers of Christ to stand together, to work together, and to struggle together for justice.”

The symposium featured addresses from clergy and from several key civil rights leaders who had worked with King.

Photo by Wendy McFadden
Dorothy Cotton, one of the speakers at the Christian Churches Together symposium in Birmingham, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter.

Educator Dorothy Cotton, who was one of the highest ranking women in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, cautioned against regarding the civil rights movement as “Dr. King’s movement.” “When we say that, we think we have to have some big leader, we disempower ourselves.” That’s what is missing today, she said. “If you see something that’s not right, you might have to start an action all by yourself.”

Congressman John Lewis recounted how a month earlier he had received a formal apology from the Montgomery police chief for failing to protect him and other Freedom Riders in 1961–evidence of “the power of love, the power of the teachings of Jesus.” He challenged the church “to make some noise, to get into some good trouble.”

Baptist minister Virgil Wood emphasized the economic face of racism today and reminded listeners that King had focused as much on the “beloved economy” as on the “beloved community.”

In her remarks, Bernice King said she appreciated the emphasis on her father’s Birmingham letter, which she felt conveyed much about who he was. “He has been described as a great civil rights leader,” she noted, “but most of all he was a minister and a man of God.”

Photo by Wendy McFadden
Nancy Heishman (left) studies one of the sculptures in Kelly Ingram Park, following a prayer walk for CCT participants. The park, which was a staging ground for demonstrations in Birmingham, uses signs and sculptures to recount the 1963 attacks on children, using firehoses and police dogs.

The Church of the Brethren was represented by Stan Noffsinger, general secretary; Nancy S. Heishman, moderator-elect; and Wendy McFadden, a member of the CCT steering committee and president of the Historic Protestant family of CCT. Also in attendance was Bill Scheurer, executive director of On Earth Peace.

Christian Churches Together in the USA is the nation’s broadest fellowship of Christian communions, representing African-American, Catholic, Evangelical/Protestant, Historic Protestant, and Orthodox churches, as well as several national organizations.

— Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press.