This is one of the most important and eye-opening books I’ve read in a long time. Maybe ever. Being the terrible student that I was, I never really paid attention in history class. I used to joke that the only thing I knew about history is that World War I came before World War II. So when I started homeschooling my kids about four years ago, I began learning alongside them about world and American history. It’s been an awakening experience beyond anything I could have imagined. We recently wrapped up several weeks on the Civil War, so all of the stories of that time period were fresh in my mind and my soul when I chose this book to read and review. To say that I read this book with a tender heart would be a gross understatement. I was already wrecked going into this book, so the words within “Letters to A Birmingham Jail” ripped my heart wide open.
Before reading the book, I first read Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” two times and listened to him read it once (there are audio recordings of Dr. King reading his letter online). His letter stands as a beautiful and horrible picture of the time in which he lived. It is beautiful, sad, true and prophetic all at the same time. This book, Letters To A Birmingham Jail, is filled with stories and thoughts of thankfulness for our collective progress and remorse over our collective failure in regards to Dr. King’s mission of racial justice and reconciliation.
“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.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail
The book consists of ten chapters, each written by a different person. The writers include mostly pastors, but they are also professors, activists, authors and speakers who are all wholeheartedly committed to racial justice. The tone of the book is one of education (helping the reader understand the history but also the current state of racial reconciliation, especially within the church) and one of hopeful expectation of a better future in which we all remember, as Mother Teresa once said, that “we all belong to each other”.
There is so much within this book that we all should read and understand. Like the idea that justice (during the civil rights era, but also today) is often an economic issue. Or the truth that evil cannot be humanly overcome and that, as John Perkins wrote, “Justice is birthed from the very heart of God. He revealed divine intent in the act of creation when He created man in His own image, in His own likeness. He put all people on an even plane, regardless of color – worthy of dignity and respect.” (pg. 45) There is also much throughout this book that addresses King’s accusation of the “white moderate” who, instead of fighting alongside blacks, seemed to be almost entirely silent. He says in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “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.” He also says, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Each of the chapters begins with a letter from that chapter’s author to Dr. King himself. Some are filled with gratitude and respect for Dr. King, others are filled with remorse and new revelations as a result of Dr. King’s mission and their own life experiences. In Pastor John Bryson’s letter (pg 94) he wrote, “While the church has much to do in the way of change, none of us wants to be guilty of doing it again: remaining silent when a brother is in need. Turning a blind eye to injustice when a brother’s dignity is threatened. Asking a brother to wait when his very life is at stake.” What a beautiful and heartfelt statement.
This book addresses so many topics related to racial justice: displacement, intentionality, white privilege, majority culture, passivity, color blindness and a lot about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many stories throughout, however most of the book reads like a string of really powerful sermons tied together with the thread of kinship, unity and grace. I was so moved by this book that I have spent the last several weeks studying and learning about the history of oppression in our country and in our churches. I have found groups that are currently and actively working towards racial justice and I am learning from them what that looks like and how I can help. There is so much great information out there to inform and inspire God’s people to fight against systematic oppression and racial injustices that ARE CURRENTLY happening all over America and the world. I pray that this book will be a new beginning for me – eyes wide open, heart and soul convinced that “every human being has been created in the image of God and has dignity written on their soul.” (Crawford W. Loritts Jr., pg 76)
For more on this topic, I hope you’ll check out this podcast by the Liturgists called Black and White: Racism in America. Everything they do is fantastic – you should go ahead and just subscribe to their podcast!
Also, here’s a great ministry called Be the Bridge. Their website has tons of resources and information on being the bridge to racial unity. They also have a Facebook group you can subscribe to if you’re interested in being a part of the conversation.