Decades after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” leading clergy including several Catholic bishops have issued a response. They praised the sacrifices of the civil rights movement’s leaders and said work against racism is “unfinished.”
The response, titled “A Letter from Birmingham,” is a product of the 2011 Annual Meeting of Christian Churches Together, held Jan. 11-14 in Birmingham, Alabama. Attendees at the meeting, which examined poverty through the lens of racism, said that to their knowledge no one had ever issued a clergy response to Dr. King’s letter.
King’s 1963 letter was a response to Birmingham clergy who had appealed for unity, restraint and “common sense” while withdrawing their support for the civil rights demonstrations.
The 2011 letter expressed “profound gratitude” to the leaders of the civil rights movement, saying their sacrifices have “moved us closer to God’s justice” and demonstrated “the power of Christian, nonviolent action.”
The churchmen said “some of us have not progressed far enough beyond the initial message from the Birmingham clergy.”
“Though virtually all our institutions have formal statements against racism, too often our follow-through has been far less than our 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.”
The letter remembered the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four girls in 1963. A replaced window in the church now shows a Christ figure rejecting the world’s injustice with one hand and extending forgiveness with the other.
“In the spirit of this loving Jesus, and in the spirit of those who committed their very lives to that love, we renew our struggle to end racism in all forms,” the clergymen said.
Catholic Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, a member of the Christian Churches Together steering committee, represented the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity at the meeting.
“During the struggles of the civil rights movement, Birmingham was one of the most segregated and violent cities in America. Today, the city of Birmingham is filled with monuments, places of worship, and home to the Civil Rights Institute,” Bishop Vasquez said in a Jan. 20 statement.
He noted individuals’ stories of the injustices of racism and segregation.
“These individuals were filled with prophetic courage, even to the point of sacrificing their own personal safety to bring about equality and justice,” he explained. “Their non-violent efforts to confront racism are deeply rooted in Gospel values that all men and women, regardless of color, are created in the likeness and image of God and, therefore, worthy of respect and dignity.”
Christian Churches Together is made up of five “families” composed of representatives from Catholic Orthodox, historic Protestant, African-American and Evangelical/Pentecostal Churches. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, currently serves as one of the five presidents of the organization.