Twitter From Birmingham Jail
Most of you would hear the name Earl Stallings and it wouldn't mean anything to you. You don't know Earl Stallings.
But if you're reading this, I'd bet you know Earl Stallings.
The day I publish this is Martin Luther King Jr., Day. On MLK Day you will see your social media timelines covered in MLK quotes - deservedly so. And included with that will be posts and articles referencing his "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
Letter From Birmingham Jail is considered one of the greatest pieces of American theological literature to be written. I am afraid that, much like we do when we indiscriminately post Bible verses taken out of their contexts, we miss much of the thrust and power of the quotes in the letter when pull them away from the body of the letter.
Dr. King had been in Birmingham for a public campaign against racial segregation. After one week of demonstrations, on April 10, a local judge issued an order against public marches and picketing. The Civil Rights leaders disobeyed this order and, predictably, were jailed on Friday, April 12th - which also happened to be Good Friday.
The Letter was written as a rebuke to 8 white ministers (of various denominations and faiths) who had that same day placed an ad in the Birmingham News accusing those fighting for justice, including Dr. King, of being "outside agitators" who would only unravel the progress that had been made for civil rights in Birmingham thus far (which admittedly wasn't much).
Only one of the 8 pastors that Dr. King responds to is mentioned by name: Rev. Earl Stallings. MLK wrote of Stallings, "I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis."
At that time, Stallings was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham. As you can imagine, this action caused major strife and division. This tension lingered and boiled over after Stallings left FBC Birmingham. In 1970, an African-American woman named Winifred Bryant, along with her daughter Twila, walked down front as the worship service concluded and presented themselves for membership. The church voted to deny their request, and on the spot, lay leader Byrn Williamson led a Jerry Maguire-style walkout. He was joined by about 250 FBC members, and they would go on to start the Baptist Church of the Covenant, which still resides in downtown Birmingham today.
That division and strife in the church body began with Stallings. But it would be a mistake to assume that King's commendation for Stallings meant that King approved of Stallings' philosophy. If you read the whole Letter, it is quite apparent that while King was grateful of Stallings' action, he was not likewise grateful for Stallings' stance. Conservatives, like many in Stallings' church, were often displeased with his welcoming stances towards African-Americans, and activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. were often disappointed that he didn't go further.
I consider myself a moderate - in fact, I pride myself on such. And I would argue that moderates are good and necessary figures in our society's public discourse. The adjective moderate comes from the verb - (to) moderate - and the noun, moderator. This is a mediator - a go-between among disparate parties. Moderates like to consider ourselves not simply peacekeepers, but peacemakers. Even the terminology for the overseer of a political debate is Moderator. For the countless number of moderates like me, this is the part in which we see ourselves playing in our society.
And yet, as we have seen in the past number of political debates in our country, this is the one person with which both sides most often end up angry. I have a good friend that says often, "When you try to make everybody happy, you make nobody happy." Such is the life of a moderate and a Moderator.
Our world needs moderates - those who can see two sides of an issue and point out the good in both and try to usher in compromise. Much of the growth and success of humanity can be traced to those who were able to do this.
But also, much of what prevents the growth and success of humanity can be traced to moderates as well. That's because there is a fatal flaw to moderating between two sides, a flaw that can threaten both sides of the issue being debated.
Letter From Birmingham Jail lays out a Biblical response to this flaw. And "lays out" is putting it mildly. In truth, the letter destroys the moderate position. Dr. King writes of the moderate, like me:
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.
King also spends time in the letter illustrating the need to proactively march - noting that he follows in the footsteps of the Fathers of our Faith that came before - and the relative passivity from the church to the Civil Rights movement in general. If you proudly call yourself a follower of Jesus, I beg of you, read these words:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And 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?
There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
The biggest mistake you and I make when we reflect on the past is: we tend to overestimate where we would have stood on matters that seem clear to us now. We more often than not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We forget that "there but for the grace of God, go I," or that "we judge others by their worst mistakes and ourselves by our best intentions."
More likely than not, neither you nor I would have supported Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, and almost assuredly not in the year of his assassination (1968).
While MLK was one of the most admired figures of the century at the end of the 1900s, the sad but honest truth is MLK was not well-liked in his time. According to Gallup, in the year Letter From Birmingham Jail was written, King had a 43% positive perception and 39% negative among Americans. Within 2 more years, in 1966, the positive had dropped to 32% and negative had shot up to 63%.
It only got worse from there. In 1967, King spoke out against the war in Vietnam, which further reduced his popularity. A Harris Poll done in 1968, the year Dr. King was assassinated, found that he had a 75% disapproval rating among the general public. To put that into perspective, Donald Trump during his Presidency from 2017-2021 never had a disapproval rating that high.
His popularity faded not only among white Southerners - it also waned among Northern liberals and mainstream outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NAACP. King began actively campaigning in the North as well, and said this of what was known as his Marquette Park march in Chicago:
"I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today."
This was from the man who marched at Selma.
And we'd be remiss if we didn't add that he had lost support among African-Americans, as well. By the time of his death, 60% of black America no longer thought he was relevant. Even the well-celebrated (now) Jackie Robinson swore him off. As the years in the Civil Rights Era ticked by and progress remained slow, many (especially younger) African-Americans became impatient with King's non-violent approach. This ironically led to riots across 100 American cities, resulting in 37 deaths, shortly after King's assassination.
So we can share our MLK quotes today, and we should. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking we would have been sharing quotes from this Letter in 1964… nor in the immediate years thereafter.
How do I know that I would have been reluctant to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. during this time? And why should you be worried about Earl Stallings?
2 decades ago, I spent a chunk of time in Birmingham while I was attending seminary. It was here that I began to become acquainted with the story of Earl Stallings and the church that broke away from FBC Birmingham, the Baptist Church of the Covenant.
I would later learn that Stallings was also an alum of Carson-Newman College, a small Baptist school in East Tennessee that also is my alma mater.
And imagine my surprise when I learned that the church that I served for 11 years after seminary, Ridgedale Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN, was also once the home of Rev. Earl Stallings, who served as head pastor there from 1947-1951. While there he demonstrated his sympathies for the Civil Rights of African-Americans, turning down the opportunity to host a KKK rally against alcohol even though he himself was a teetotaler.
How do I know that I would have been reluctant to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. during this time in 1964? And why should you be worried about Earl Stallings?
Because I am, and would have been, Rev. Earl Stallings.
To be fair to Dr. Stallings, I don't know what happened to him after this. I don't know how he received the Letter. And I'm not interested much in that. I'm more interested in what I would have done. What I can do now. And in what you can do.
If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, I'm almost certain he would have been on Twitter. Just as I carry the moderate mantle of Dr. Stallings, and am challenged to take a different outlook on my perception of reality, there are those who carry the same call of Dr. King's Letter. There are voices carrying his legacy and pushing for equality and justice even today - that urge us to see what's on fire, not to be bystanders, and not to expect more from them than we expect from others.
I am thankful for the voices that I have found, voices that allow me to sit at their feet (well, on their feed) and listen. Voices that push and prod me on Twitter just as the Letter would have pushed and prodded me then, and does so now. In addition to some of the names I hope you're familiar with - Anthony Bradley, Austin Channing-Brown, Dwight McKissic, Jemar Tisby, among others - I am grateful for the honest voices of Heather Thompson Day, Esau McCaulley, Dante Stewart, and BJ Thompson. I'm looking forward to the new voices I have more recently found, like DeVon Wade, Khristi Lauren Adams, and Deryk Hayes. If you're one of the 20 people reading this blog, all of these names would be worth your time to follow.
They are not writing to me, not as MLK was in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, and they have no obligation to. They are writing for their own stories to be heard. But it is on me, the white moderate:
To be okay with being stepped on a little bit.
To be okay if their words sometimes feel like they are aimed right at me.
Even to disagree, but not to do so without first understanding where they are coming from.
Because the fatal flaw to being a moderate is this: moderating inherently assumes that all things are equal. But all things aren't equal, and you don't have to look around for long to see that.
This was MLK's problem with the white moderate. The white moderate position was: "let's do this peacefully and patiently, through the court and congressional system." But this assumes that African-Americans had an equal voice in the all-white court and congressional system - they didn't. So how would that have even worked? MLK's argument to the white moderate was precisely this: we can't have a showdown of ideas that assumes all thing are equal until all things are equal. And his frustration with the white moderate was their refusal to see this.
Things are better now for African-Americans, but they are not yet quite equal (and for that matter, they aren't for women yet, either). There is a challenge for me - and you - to listen, to push, to be pushed, to be okay with being stepped on from time to time, and to not be, as MLK called us, a "stumbling block."
Perhaps today you'll see this quote from Dr. King: "The time is always right to do what is right." He expounded on this idea in his Letter, saying:
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 antireligious laws.
So if you've made it this far, I would encourage you: Don't share an MLK quote today and not understand all of this. Don't share an MLK quote today with no sense of what those who have followed in King's shoes would say is "not right." And don't share an MLK quote today and do nothing.
Because it's okay to start out as Earl Stallings. But when that Letter comes, or that Twitter feed comes, it's not okay to stay there.
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Cover Photo by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash