Letters from Prison, II: The 67th Book of the Bible
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. —Philippians 1:21
On January 16, 1963, eight clergymen got together for a Dutch Lunch at the old Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama. Today, the Tutwiler is a Hampton Inn, but that’s misleading; in 1963, the Tutwiler was the epitome of southern hospitality. I wasn’t there, but in my mind’s eye, I see sterling silver, white tablecloths, delicate teacups for the matriarchs who will come later for high tea, and waiters in black tie, black waistcoats, and black skin.
So these eight clergymen get this large round eight-top and start talking about the hot issue of the day in Birmingham, Alabama: what to do about the outsiders who have invaded Birmingham from all over the country to agitate for the end of segregation.
George Wallace had just been elected Governor of Alabama; in his inaugural speech two days before the ministerial lunch at the Tutwiler, Governor Wallace had outlined his one-plank political platform: Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever. George Wallace had been Governor of Alabama for two days, but Jim Crow had been King of Birmingham for almost exactly 100 years, since Appomattox.
White people and black people never walked down the street together, or, obviously, ate lunch together, in public or in private places; or celebrated communion together at local churches. And here’s the ultimate irony: at the Birmingham Court House, there were separate Bibles for the courtroom oaths of black people and white people.
Older black men were called ‘Uncle.’ Older black women were called ‘Auntie.’ Young black men were called ‘Nigger,’ or ‘Boy,’ never ‘Mister’ or ‘Sir.’ One black woman named her newborn son ‘Mister,’ and when her insurance agent asked her about this strange first name, she explained “My son will grow up to become a man one day, and I want everybody to call him ‘Mister.’”
So all these outsiders from all over the United States, including a preacher from Atlanta named Martin Luther King, Jr., are coming to Birmingham to protest this Jim Crow State of Affairs, and these eight clergymen get together for lunch at the Tutwiler. There are two Episcopalians, two Methodists, one Baptist, one Presbyterian, one Roman Catholic, and one Jew. They are the most prominent clergymen in Birmingham.
Five of them—five of eight!—are bishops; the two parish pastors preach to tall-steeple Baptist and Presbyterian congregations; two of them were educated at Princeton, and one at Emory. These guys are sleek, smart, sophisticated, and successful, almost sexy; they really are good people; they do not work for the Anti-Christ. They are not Ku Klux Klan kind of guys; they consider themselves to be liberal and enlightened; or, maybe better, middle-of-the-road kinds of guys. They disagree with George Wallace: ‘Integration Never!’ And they disagree with Martin Luther King: ‘Integration Now!’
So after this lunch at the Tutwiler, these eight moderate minister’s dash off a thoughtless, 428-word letter for the two Birmingham newspapers. Their message can be summed up in one word: “Wait.” Or another word: “Someday.” Or maybe two words: “Not now.” Or two other words: “Be patient.” What these ‘moderate’ ministers wanted to say is that desegregation is a good thing, but not yet; it’s too soon.
Three months later—on Good Friday, 1963—Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others are arrested for protesting the very desegregation those eight clergymen think is premature. Bull Connor’s policemen seize Dr. King by the back of his belt and escort him to the Birmingham City Jail where he is thrown into a 9’x6′ cell with a mirror, a sink, a toilet, and a cot, but no mattress.
With nothing else to do, Dr. King decides to write a response to those eight ‘moderate’ ministers. If the letter from the ‘moderate’ ministers can be summed up with the terse precis ‘Not yet,” Martin Luther King’s response could be reduced to a one-word response: “Now!” Or, in Dr. King’s three-word elaboration: “All. Now. Here.”
Dr. King’s Letter was so eloquent, so elegant, so temperate, and so timely that it seemed almost sacred. Many Christians call it the 67th Book of the Bible (at least for the American Church).
Martin’s prison letter shares a lot with Paul’s prison letter to the Philippians. First of all, they were both originally written to a small group of real, enfleshed, definite people.
We forget that. Philippians is our Bible, literally; it is Holy Writ; it is our Scripture; it is the very word of God. But not originally. Originally, Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians was just a thank-you note to friends. He mentions them by name in his affectionate little missive: Epaphroditus, Synteche, Euodia; they are his friends; Paul never dreamed we’d be reading and proclaiming his little thank-you note as the ipsissima verba of God Godself.
It’s the same with Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail; it was originally written to eight prominent Birmingham clergymen; ever since, the rest of us have been merely eavesdropping; we are listening in on a conversation that was not originally intended for us.
Dr. King’s Letter made these eight Birmingham clergy nationally famous; for the rest of their careers, it became the single thing they were known for; in some cases it ended their careers and turned their lives down an errant path.
Years later, someone asked one of these clergymen, “Dr. Harmon, did you ever meet Martin Luther King?” Dr. Harmon replied, “No, I never did. All he ever did was write me a letter.”
Specific recipients; universal truth. I think these prison letters tell us something about the nature of truth, and it is just this: Huge, global, comprehensive, universal truths arise most profoundly from specific, particular, individual communications.
A long time ago a talented young journalism student graduated from college and was looking for some context where he could use his skills, so he bought a struggling newspaper in a tiny town in New England and began to write about the ordinary events of this boring little town with such affection and perceptiveness and truth that the townfolk couldn’t wait for the arrival of the newspaper on their front porch the next morning.
One man said to this newspaper editor, “Henry, your stories are so local they’re universal.” Yes? You know what he means, right? All these story-tellers whose truth is so local it’s universal? Steve Hartman for “On the Road.” Garrison Keillor. I’ll bet you all come to the 10:30 service so that you can watch Charles Osgood on Sunday Morning first.
When God wants to get our attention God writes, “Dear Bill,” “Dear Jo,” “Dear Tom.” It’s handwritten. Your address is on the envelope. Somebody licked the stamp. Your local postmaster canceled the stamp and then delivered the letter to your own mailbox. God sends us the Letter to the Philippians. God sends us a Letter from Birmingham City Jail. God sends us a carpenter with work boots and tool belt, from the tiny hick town of Nazareth.
God’s truth is never general or abstract or addressed ‘Dear Occupant.’ God’s truth is not junk mail. It’s always, “Dear Bill,” “Dear Synteche,” “Dear Bishop Harmon.” It’s a cliché because it’s true: God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”
So, both Paul and Martin addressed their letters to very specific recipients. Here’s something else: even though they were both in prison when they wrote their respective letters, both of them had their own personal secretaries. You remember how the Letter to the Philippians begins? “From Paul AND TIMOTHY, slaves of Christ Jesus; to all the saints in Philippi. Paul dictated that letter, but Timothy probably transcribed it, right?
And as for St. Martin Luther King: did you ever wonder how the world ever saw this letter written from a tiny, drab prison cell with no desk and no paper and not even a mattress? Dr. King wrote it out on scraps of toilet paper and in the margins of old newspapers, until sympathetic prison guards snuck some real stationery to Dr. King, and then he smuggled out the first drafts in the briefcases of his lawyers to the offices of The Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, where an SCLC secretary named Willie Pearl Mackey did the best she could to puzzle together this inscrutable pile of toilet paper scraps and old newspapers, and hoped not only that she could interpret the rough scrawl of a prison inmate writing his letter from a cot without a mattress, but also that she got all the tiny pieces in the right order, and then she typed it all out on her IBM electric typewriter, staying up till the wee small hours of the morning, and when she fell asleep and her forehead hit the typewriter keyboard, Willie Pearl’s boss Wyatt T. Walker, the Executive Director of the SCLC, carried her over to the couch and began banging away himself at this timeless masterpiece.
Like St. Paul, St. Martin had a secretary too, and her name was Willie Pearl Mackey. Is that a name from a far-fetched novel that’s almost too good to be true? At the bottom of the original draft of the transcription, there are these initials: MLK (in caps): wm (lower case). MLK: wm. Years later, when the import of the Letter became obvious to the whole country, Willie Pearl will never forgive herself for throwing the toilet paper scraps and old newspapers into the wastebasket. If she’d saved them, they’d be behind bullet-proof glass in Washington to this day, like the Declaration and the Constitution.
So, Paul and Martin both had very specific addressees, and their own private secretaries. One last likeness and then I’ll quit. It’s about the two Epistolarians themselves. Martin and Paul were both towering giants who changed the world for good and forever, and they both squeezed all the richness and goodness and meaning from life that they possibly could, but they never grasped it too tightly. Writes St. Paul to his favorite church: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”5678
In other words, if this Roman imprisonment ends with my freedom, or if it ends with my execution, I win both ways. If I live, I win, because then I get to keep working shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of you, my best friends. And if I die, I win too, because then I get to be with Jesus. If I live, I win, and if I die, I win.
So there’s Paul: a powerless prisoner pleading for the pity of a Princeling in the Palace on the Palatine. But even in these desperate circumstances, Paul discovers that his life has a plan, a presence, and a purpose. Even a jail cell advances the cause of Christ, or, in Martin’s case, of the civil rights movement.
For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I live, I win; if I die, I win. Heads, I win; Tails, I win. Up, I win; Down, I win. Spades, I win; Clubs, I win. Red, I win; Black, I win. Odd, I win; Even I win. Lucky Seven’s, I win; snake eyes, I win. My zip code as my Powerball number, I win; my telephone number as my Powerball entry, I win; my birthday as my number, I win. Whatever happens, I win the lottery.
That’s how you live life; squeeze all the goodness and meaning and richness out of it that you can, but don’t grasp it too tightly.
For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain, said St. Paul. Or, as St. Martin put it: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” That was on April 3, 1968; 12 hours later, he was dead. Love life, but don’t grasp it too tightly.
I need to tell you something before I quit. I’ve been kind of rough on the city of Birmingham this morning. All of this happened around Easter Sunday in 1963, but I need to tell you that a mere 16 years later, in 1979, Birmingham, Alabama, elected a black man as its mayor, and they reelected him four more times until he’d served a total of 20 years. Dr. King was right: the arc of justice is long, but it bends toward the light.
More good news. Dr. King was not alone in his brave fight for justice. He was not even the first. My heart broke when I heard that Natalie Cole died on New Year’s Day at the young age of 65.
Her father of course was Nat King Cole, the fabulously popular crooner, but I didn’t know her mother was a minor star herself. Her name was Maria and she sang with Duke Ellington.
In 1948, Nat and Maria Cole wanted to buy a house in the posh Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and when the neighbors heard a black family was moving into the neighborhood, they protested. “We don’t want any undesirables living in our neighborhood,” they said.
Nat King Cole and Maria Cole just said, “We don’t want any undesirables in the neighborhood either; if we meet any, we’ll let you know.”
That moment was…Unforgettable.
Almost all of the historical facts and personal reminiscences of those events from Easter of 1963 and its aftermath come from S. Jonathan Bass’ extraordinary book Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001).
Slightly adapted from Gerald Kennedy, “All the Fullness,” in The Lion and the Lamb (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950), p.233.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 286.
“Natalie Cole Dead at 65,” AOL.com, January 1, 2016.