On April 12, 1963, eight Alabama pastors made a plea for unity. They published a statement in the local paper urging blacks to withdraw their support from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his demonstrations. They titled their piece “A Call for Unity.” Although they were in basic agreement with King that segregation should end, they accused King of being an outsider, of using "extreme measures" that incite "hatred and violence," calling King's demonstrations "unwise and untimely," and saying that racial issues should instead be "properly pursued in the courts."
These eight pastors may have meant well. But they got it wrong. The advantage we have looking back at their mistakes is we have the opportunity to learn from them. So here are four lessons we may be able to learn if we are paying attention.
A Call for Unity may be good, or it may not be. It’s good so long as the unity that is called for equally represents all sides. It’s not good if the call for unity comes at the expense of the oppressed. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
The eight pastors sided with law enforcement. And in 1963 Alabama they took issue with King’s form of protest. They called it extreme saying, “We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”
With this critique of King’s method of protest they sided with the police saying, “We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled.”
So lesson number one is this: a call for unity is good only if it truly represents all sides. Chanting “all lives matter” makes sense so long as it is demonstrably true that all lives do in fact matter. If this is not the case then the call for unity is self-defeating. There can be no real unity while true equality is being denied.
True unity cannot be coerced. Not only did these eight pastors side with the police, they also encouraged black people to abandon Martin Luther King, Jr. They concluded the newspaper article by saying, “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham… We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”
Within this appeal is codified language. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in prison. It was claimed he had broken the law. The appeal was to abandon King and observe the “law” and “common sense.” Do you see how twisted that thinking is? They wanted peace for their community at the expense of the Black community. Common sense would dictate that schools should be desegregated. That black people should be able to drink from the same fountain of water and justice. But this was not happening in Alabama in 1963. Instead of appealing to a misguided notion of “common sense” they should have appealed to the common good. Liberty and justice for all. Equal schools for all. Equal pay for all. An understanding that all are created in the image of God. If those ministers would have preached that message they may have found themselves on the right side of history. Instead they deified “Law and Order” and pressured the black community into abandoning the movement.
So lesson number two is this: unity cannot be demanded. Any time an authoritarian says, “Stand at allegiance or else,” that fuels the fire for rebellion - not unity. Sometimes the call for unity will come in the form of swear words and threats. “Get that SOB off the field or he’ll be fired.” And sometimes the calls for unity appear more kind. But whatever the case, true unity will never come about by coercion. The pastors thought justice could be delayed. They enjoyed their sense of manufactured peace. They demanded that King make change by using the judicial system. But King understood that equality can only be achieved through the law if the law is just. You can’t fake justice and you can’t unify people by making them pretend it is just.
Unity is not the absence of tension. While in prison Martin Luther King, Jr. received a copy of the newspaper written by his fellow pastors. He responded on the 16th of April 1963.
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
What followed was one of the most famous letters and impassioned words from prison in history. If you have never read it, take the time. I am just going to touch on a part of it. In the letter, King takes the time to explain the purpose of the nonviolent protests and movement.
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
King goes on to explain how he ended up in prison and how he respects the law so long as the law is just.
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's anti-religious laws.
Then King addresses the heart of the letter. The part of the letter that has moved me, as a white pastor, to action. The part of the letter that addresses how tension and unity must coexist. King makes it clear that, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension it is the presence of justice.”
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
So, lesson number three is there is never true unity without tension. Tension is a biblical thing. As Christians, we are called to navigate the tension between seeking justice and loving mercy. We do that by walking humbly with God and radically committing to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Unity and truth don’t contradict. Eight years before writing his letter from Birmingham prison, eight years before responding to those eight pastors and their call for unity, King preached a sermon in 1955 called the “Montgomery Bus Boycott.” He made it clear that they had a right to protest. Many people said they were doing it wrong, they were disturbers of the peace. King made it clear that the truth was on their side. He made it clear that you can’t have unity without the truth:
And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I want to say that in all of our actions we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which we justly deserve. And don't let anybody frighten you. We are not afraid of what we are doing because we are doing it within the law. There is never a time in our American democracy that we must ever think we're wrong when we protest. We reserve that right. When labor all over this nation came to see that it would be trampled over by capitalistic power, it was nothing wrong with labor getting together and organizing and protesting for its rights.
We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality. May I say to you my friends, as I come to a close, and just giving some idea of why we are assembled here, that we must keep—and I want to stress this, in all of our doings, in all of our deliberations here this evening and all of the week and while—whatever we do, we must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our actions. But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian face, faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.
Truth and unity don’t contradict. Truth and unity must coexist. Jesus put it this way, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” And in His last prayer, He prayed for unity and truth. Unity and truth don’t have to contradict. Christ’s prayer was that they would complement each other, and the way that the world would know we are Christians was by the authenticity of our love and the unity of our mission. The eight pastors who wrote “A Call for Unity” may have meant well. They may have been united in their mission. But they got it wrong. Here are their names:
C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D., Bishop of AlabamaJoseph A. Durick, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, BirminghamRabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, AlabamaBishop Paul Hardin, Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida ConferenceBishop Nolan B. Harmon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist ChurchGeorge M. Murray, D.D., LL.D., Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of AlabamaEdward V. Ramage, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United StatesEarl Stallings, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama
If you lived in Alabama in 1963 where would you sign your name? Would you sign with the eight pastors calling for unity? Or would you sign with the protesters? Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement of nonviolent resistance is revered by both black and white alike today. But that was not the case in his day. We learn from history by reflecting on it. By asking what courageous leaders like King would do today. We learn from history when we realize what we choose to do now is what we would have done then.
Notes & References: Elie Wiesel http://www.massresistance.org/docs/gen/09a/mlk_day/statement.html Ibid. Ibid. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html http://www.blackpast.org/1955-martin-luther-king-jr-montgomery-bus-boycott
Kevin McGill is a pastor living in Troy, Idaho. He and his wife have two young children. This essay was originally published on his Facebook page and is reprinted here with permission.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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