Sixty years later, King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' resonates in Maine

Jan. 15—On April 16, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter.

He had been arrested four days earlier for disobeying a court order that prohibited protests in Birmingham, Alabama. From his jail cell, he wrote to eight white religious leaders who had publicly condemned ongoing civil rights demonstrations. He decried the silence of white moderates and argued that racial violence demanded a more urgent response than those clergymen had counseled.

Sixty years have passed, but that message still rings true for the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill. He is the executive director of The BTS Center, a Maine nonprofit that offers theological programs. He rereads the letter every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and reflects on its call to be more courageous than cautious.

"We like to think that racism is that awful thing that other people do, the blatant white supremacist brand of violence," he said. "But in the letter, Dr. King really pulls out the nuance of that and reminds us that racism is the violence of silence."

This year, the Maine Council of Churches and The BTS Center chose the Letter from Birmingham Jail for an online reading to mark the holiday. King's words will be read by eight people from Maine's faith and social justice communities. For the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, four of the readers reflected on passages they will recite during Monday's event and the letter's relevance to the modern world. Those passages and the readers' comments are shown here.

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Marpheen Chann, 31, is a Portland activist and the author of a biography called "Moon in Full: A Modern Day Coming-of-Age Story." He works as the community impact manager of the Good Shepherd Food Bank and serves on a number of local boards and organizations, including the Portland Planning Board. His mother came to Maine from Cambodia as a refugee, and he is the president of Khmer Maine, a grassroots organization serving the state's Cambodian community.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

Chann said the letter brought to his mind more recent protests — when a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, or when anti-Asian hate crimes increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. He thought about the people who seemed more concerned with the protests themselves than the racism and trauma that prompted them.

"In America, we want to do the quick thing, we want to do the easy thing, we want to get it out of the way, we want to address the low-hanging fruit and the token items and call it good. But I think that's what's really important that Dr. King says in this letter is that we need to go deeper and examine ourselves deeper."

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Dustin Ward, 35, is a racial equity and reconciliation advocate at It Is Time ... LLC. He started the company in hopes of working with organizations and individuals to make change and end systemic racism. He was born in Florida, adopted as a baby and raised in Presque Isle. He now lives in New Gloucester, where he is the first Black person to serve on the Select Board.

John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

Ward said he heard about King every year in school during Black History Month, but realized his history lessons had not covered the true scope of the civil rights movement when a high school teacher showed a film about Malcolm X.

"It made me realize there was more about who I am as a Black individual and civil rights in this country that I wasn't aware of. I wanted to learn more."

Ward earned a master's degree in divinity and was working as a pastor in Maine in 2020 when a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. He wrote a call to action and hoped his congregation would rally behind him, but he said he received backlash instead. He ultimately decided to leave ministry and started his business later that year. King's words to his clergy colleagues spoke to Ward's modern-day experience.

"The words that I see him having written are an attempt to bring to light what I constantly experienced in ministry, which is that sometimes white clergymen would believe that all is well. ... We tried to avoid or not talk about the issue as a way of saying we solved it. That is traumatic and scary. I wanted to talk about it, we needed to talk about it, and so often there was this desire to be silent about it."

"I like taking the opportunity to read this letter because every word you can pull into current context and say, 'we're still dealing with that.'"

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Andie Giraso, 16, is a junior at Scarborough High School and the president of the civil rights club there. She was born and raised in Rwanda and moved to Maine six years ago.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

Giraso said, "Growing up, racism wasn't something that ever crossed my mind. I was constantly surrounded with people who looked like me and sounded like me. It wasn't until I stepped foot in America that I witnessed the racial injustice that torments our people.

"It's very important that we acknowledge the existence of racism in today's society rather than ignoring it and pretending it no longer exists. That is why I choose to speak out for those who are silenced in my community, and I hope to continue this work after graduating high school.

"I first read Dr. King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' during my freshman year of high school. My initial reaction to the letter was hope. It gave me hope knowing that Dr. King was able to do what he did, especially during a time where racism and segregation was so normalized. It gave me the confidence to believe that we (this generation) can and will make a change. What stood out to me the most was him saying, 'freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.' Meaning that if we want change, we must demand it."

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Shirley Hager, 70, grew up in segregated North Carolina and was in high school when King was assassinated. She now lives in Chesterville and is a retired associate professor from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

She is also one of the authors of a book published last year called "The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations." Hager, who is white, is involved in supporting Wabanaki efforts for sovereignty in Maine. She reread "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to prepare for Monday's event and was struck by the parallels with that effort.

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

"'Groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.' I think that's what we're seeing. We're seeing individuals be changed around this issue, and that includes individual legislators, but when it gets to the tipping point for the state to actually give up some of its power in service to something that's much greater, we fall short. Because privileged groups seldom give up their power. It's hard to change systems, but that's what we need to do."