“While violence surrounded Dr. King’s life, he proclaimed in word and deed the direction of his Savior, Jesus Christ – namely, that injustice must not be ignored, but neither can violence be addressed and eliminated by greater acts of violence,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville said April 14.
Archbishop Kurtz’s remarks came at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of King’s letter, held in Birmingham, Ala. April 14-15. The event, which was organized by the organization Christian Churches Together, drew leaders of various Christian denominations from across the U.S.
King wrote his April 16, 1963 letter after he was imprisoned for parading without a permit as part of a large-scale non-violent protest against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Religious leaders of the time said his action was “unwise and untimely.”
Archbishop Kurtz, who was a 16-year-old Pennsylvania resident at the time, said King’s response showed “true wisdom, whose time had long since come.”
The archbishop praised King’s letter as “rich in foundations of scripture and human philosophy.” He noted that it cites Socrates, St. Paul, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
King’s letter told his critics that the law’s application against anti-segregation protests, like the political system of the segregated South, was unjust.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King warned, adding that the clergymen’s statement failed to express concern about the conditions he said caused the protests.
Archbishop Kurtz said King’s letter deserves a response that “asks for forgiveness for past sins,” gives thanks for the “clear gains” of the past fifty years, and resolves to “do more.”
“Much more needs to be done,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Kurtz noted several Catholic efforts to respond to racism. He cited the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Aug. 23, 1963 statement on racial harmony and the 1979 U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, which condemned racial discrimination and racism as sins. He also noted a 1998 statement from two leading Catholic bishops condemning racism.
The archbishop said Christians must ask God forgiveness for sins of racism, especially “those that linger consciously or subconsciously in the present.”
The commemoration of King’s letter also featured the signing of a letter responding to King’s words, the Archdiocese of Louisville newspaper The Record reports.
Rev. Bernice King, a minister and King’s youngest child, participated in a panel discussion at the event. Other attendees included Presbyterian minister Rev. Carlos Malavé, executive director of Christian Churches Together; Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners; U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); and civil rights leader Dorothy Cotton.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was “direct and prophetic” in its call for justice and racial equality, an archbishop said on the occasion of the letter’s 50th anniversary.
Civil rights, Church in America, Martin Luther King, Jr.