Echoes of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" - Martin Luther King Jr.
A few years ago I started a tradition of reading and reflecting upon Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" every year on the holiday bearing his name in the United States. And so this morning, I sat down to once again revisit this powerful and prophetic letter, which as the title implies, is an open written by MLK from a Birmingham Alabama jail on April 12, 1963 in response to an open letter published four days previously by eight white members of the clergy in Birmingham, the epicenter of the segregated Southern United States at the time.
Having come under fire from critics (sadly many in the church) as an "outsider" directing and leading non-violent protests in Birmingham, for which he and others were jailed for not having a permit to organize and lead such demonstrations.
MLK's letter is a direct response to the accusations lobbed at him, criticizing him for leading public protests rather than pursuing negotiation through the court system to work for change and has since been recognized as an important text in the American Civil Rights Movement. The letter bears the contents of a man possessed with both a Christlike humility and an intense focused desire to bring justice and freedom to black America and by extension all people groups being dehumanized and discriminated against.
For those who have never read the letter in its entirety (as well as the letter it is in direct response to), I would strongly encourage you to do so. While they are written nearly 60 years ago, the sobering reality is that they are in many ways applicable today in the continued struggle against racism and injustice we continue to witness in America and around the world. (see link to PDF document of both letters below)
What struck me this morning in my reading and reflecting was the various ways in which MLK's letter has been powerfully and prophetically echoed in contemporary films over the past year.
Movies are a medium of art that move me to move like no other. As a self-professing cinephile, one of the most meaningful and regular ways in which I experience the love of God and the spectrum of human emotions, is in my local movie theater (or basement home theater in this time of COVID-19). When the lights go dim and the big screen lights up, my soul sings.
In the description of his excellent book, Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings film critic Josh Larsen writes, “Movies do more than tell a good story. They are expressions of raw emotion, naked vulnerability, and unbridled rage. They often function in the same way as prayers, communicating our deepest longings and joys to a God who hears each and every one.”
The echoes of the raw emotion, naked vulnerability and unbridled rage embodied in MLK's letter has been captured on film in powerful and prophetic ways in the past year. Here are three films which dovetail and echo the spirit of MLK along with quotes directly lifted from his letter:
1. Mangrove (Small Axe Anthology): Director, Steve McQueen
In his recently released Small Axe series, director Steve McQueen has compiled a five film anthology recounting various stories about the lives of West Indian immigrants in London from the 1960s to the 1980s. While the entire anthology taken as a whole is deeply impactful, Mangrove, the first of the five (and the best in my opinion) is the most powerful and sobering portrayal of racism, police brutality and the struggle for racial equality and justice in England dovetailing with the similar struggles in America during MLK's life and beyond.
In Mangrove and the entire Small Axe anthology, British Director Steve McQueen, who himself is of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, has crafted powerful reminder that the struggle for equality is not unique to America and in doing so he echoes Dr. King's thoughts on the necessity of tension and the direct and visible non-violent protests. As Dr. King writes in his letter:
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
Mangrove (and the entire Small Axe anthology) is mandatory viewing for anyone seeking greater understanding of, empathy for and solidarity with black communities and other ethnic minorities whose health and well being have and continue to be threated by deeply rooted systemic racism and injustice.
Available to rent/view on Amazon Prime Video (TV-MA)
2. Time (Documentary) - Director, Garrett Bradley
This recently released documentary follows Sibil Fox Richardson (also known as Fox Rich), an entrepreneur, abolitionist, author, and mother of six, in her long and arduous fight for justice and the release of her husband, Rob, serving a 60-year prison sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for bank robbery.
While Fox and Rob confessed to the robbery while in a state of desperation while pregnant with twins (their 5th and 6th children), the documentary honestly and agonizingly shows the injustice and inequality in the American prison system. While Fox, after taking a plea deal was released after three and a half years of her 12 year sentence, her husband Rob did not take the deal and was convicted of a staggering 60 year sentence.
In viewing Time, viewers are givien an up close and intimate look at the relentless love of a wife and mother for her husband and children in their battle for justice and freedom in the context of a severely flawed and unjustly skewed American criminal justice system. Filmed on a Sony FS7 camera from 100+ hours of home video footage, finished in black and white, Time is a deeply moving experience evoking the naked vulnerability, unbridled rage, and above all, enduring love of Dr. King's letter.
As I was reading Dr. King's letter this morning, I was left wondering if the documentary title, beyond connecting with the time spent in prison by Rob, and the seemingly timeless pursuit of justice and racial equality by SIbil and countless other single moms in her situation, was at least in part inspired by a portion of Dr. Ling's letter:
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. 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. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Fox's determination to pursue love, justice and freedom for her husband, while working as an entrepreneur, abolitionist and mother of six children is simply nothing short of staggering. It is a powerful real life story of the injustices in the criminal justice system and the relentless love of a family in the persevering commitment and relentless love for one another.
Available to rent/view on Amazon Prime Video (PG-13)
3. One Night in Miami - Director, Regina King
In his letter of response to those who would accuse him and the civil rights movement he was actively leading, Dr. King identifies himself as standing in the middle between two opposing forces in the Negro community of America:
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."
Regina King's, One Night in Miami is a fictionalized (albeit inspired by true events) drama chronicling of the events of February 25, 1964 and the meeting and conversations shared between four famous black Americans--Malcolm X, boxer Muhammed Ali (then Cassius Clay), NFL football star Jim Brown, and acclaimed musician Sam Cooke--about the plight of black America and how to best use their influence and platforms to incite meaningful and lasting change.
What I find most interesting is that in the film, the characters of Sam Cooke and Malcolm X personify the two opposing forces, Dr. King speaks of in his letter, with Cooke, the accomplished and economically secure musician whom is viewed by the bitter and militant Malcolm X as being apathetic of the tribulations of the Negro community.
The interactions between Malcolm X and Cooke are impactful and the film is effective not only in how it communicates the realities of segregation and racism in the 19060s America, but in how it accurately brings to light the ways in which those with different perspectives and social standing--within the same--can misinterpret and and caricature the other, while underscoring the priority of shared empathy in the pursuit of justice for all.
Available to rent/view on Amazon Prime Video (R)
Although penned nearly 60 years ago Martin Luther King Jr's letter from a Birmingham jail and his prophetic voice continues to echo today, not only through films but through the ongoing work of those who would strive to speak and work towards justice and equality for all through non-violent resistance and Christlike love.
"Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our
great nation with all their scintillating beauty." - MLK