Every so often, MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” makes the social media rounds again. This weekend on Twitter and FB a few folks have shared the quote, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
That letter is one of my favorites. When I was looking at it again the other day I realized that the common title, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” keeps pop attention on where King physically was when he wrote it. The letter’s actual argument, intended audience, and wider context gets obscured.
The letter was also printed under the title “The Negro is Your Brother” and was published in excerpts and in full with and without King’s permission between 1963 and 1964. It responded to eight so-called moderate clergymen who, while sympathetic to the logic of the equality movement, viewed equality activists as “naturally impatient” troublemakers who should defer to the courts and not press their concerns or stir up the calm locals. They’d published two open letters that year criticizing “outsiders” and appealing for “law and order,” and King responded to all of that noise head on.
We rarely hear about their responses to King’s reply. 🙂 One of the 8 had allowed local civil rights workers to worship at his church; his congregation fractured over race after the minister moved away two years later. Another become a strong public advocate for equality, and his church peers accused him of being a communist and heretic. At least two of the 8 were offended by King’s letter, one calling it “propaganda” in his memoirs, and the other only criticizing it after King’s death.
A More Personal Reflection
Nearly 4 years ago, I moved back to the Southwest after several months in the DC region. The congregation I attended that first Sabbath back in town hosted a minister from a neighboring state.
This minister pitched his sermon on spiritual warfare against every possible boogeyman: Catholics, feminists, intellectuals, LGBT people, atheists and non-Christians. I can no longer remember whether I was more dismayed by the sermon’s spiritualized prejudice or by the congregation’s casual affirmation of it.
I took a sabbatical from that congregation, and later made that sabbatical permanent.
Since then I’ve moved away and found a church that does not promote or justify prejudice, but occasionally I’m reminded that this is an unusual congregational feature.
Today, thanks to the internet, I overheard a Sabbath School conversation in which visible LGBT people were represented as a sign of the degenerate end times. If any class participant disagreed with that claim, none of them rebutted it, so it hung in the air as if valid.
In pulpits and on talk shows, too, any believer or preacher can freely tie an Other’s visibility to the power of Satan and the rapidly approaching end of the age. “Free speech” might be free for the speaker but often has high costs for the subject, and it’s rarely challenged in the moment where it counts most. We have too many silent friends.
I’ve been a silent friend before. I’ve also been a silent Other. But both roles support and sustain prejudice, alienation, and fear. Neither role benefits me or those I love. Neither role helps to create the world that I want to live in as an adult. I’ve moved on and am grateful for the organizations that have helped me find more sustainable roles to play.
Have you ever been a silent friend? How did it feel? Why were you silent? Did you tell yourself it wasn’t the right time to speak up? How do you know what “the right time” is? Do you believe it’s ever more important to guard a speaker’s soapbox than it is to challenge false witnessing against the people he or she is speaking about? Is silence acceptance, and critique an attack?