The BTS Center
97 India Street • Portland, ME 04101

January 18, 2021

Today we give thanks for the life and legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and we consider our place in the ongoing struggle for racial justice and equity.

Today we'll hear Dr. King's words once again, and they will remind us that the work to which he called us is far from finished.

I hope you are planning to be with us for today's event — "Committed to Listen: a public reading of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter From a Birmingham Jail." You can join us on Zoom — details and registration link are below — or you can catch the livestream on Facebook Live from The BTS Center page or the Maine Council of Churches page.

Dr. King wrote this Letter 57 years ago from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in response to a statement — "A Call for Unity" — published by eight prominent white clergymen from Alabama, who claimed they agreed with the cause but took issue with the strategies Dr. King and other civil rights leaders were employing.

If you have some time to prepare a little bit for today's event, I hope you'll read this article, entitled "A Call for Unity?" written by Kevin McGill and published in 2017 in a journal called Spectrum. In it, McGill explores four lessons we can learn from these eight misguided white clergymen, who prioritized unity — really, comfort — over justice. McGill concludes:

"If you lived in Alabama in 1963 where would you sign your name? Would you sign with the eight pastors calling for unity? Or would you sign with the protesters? Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement of nonviolent resistance is revered by both black and white alike today. But that was not the case in his day. We learn from history by reflecting on it — by asking what courageous leaders like King would do today. We learn from history when we realize what we choose to do now is what we would have done then."

May we learn from history. May we make the necessary connections between the past and the present. May we resist the temptation to sanitize or sentimentalize Dr. King today. May we commit ourselves to anti-racist practices, principles, and policies, and join the cause of building the Beloved Community. May we do our part to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill
Executive Director • The BTS Center
Committed to Listen
a public reading of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
Letter From a Birmingham Jail

TODAY: Monday, January 18 • 12:15 pm (Eastern)
via Zoom and Facebook Live
On April 16, 1963, from his cell in a Birmingham City Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned a public letter addressed to several of Alabama's leading white religious leaders, who had openly questioned the pace and the confrontational nature of civil rights demonstrations. 
This "Letter from Birmingham Jail" has been called "the most important written document of the civil rights era." 
In the 21-page, typed, double-spaced essay, Dr. King responds to the criticisms these eight white clergymen had made in their recent "A Call for Unity" statement, in which they agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not the streets. 
“It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham," Dr. King agreed, "but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” 
Dr. King argued that racial violence and oppression demanded a more urgent response — that lukewarm words of support were inadequate, that only nonviolent direct action would result in real progress toward change.
"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."
Because the work of racial justice is far from finished, and because Rev. Dr. King's challenge to religious communities and leaders is as relevant today as it was 57 years ago, we will come together on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2021 for a public reading of the Letter
The gathering, accessible by Zoom and Facebook Live, will include multiple voices, contemplative music, and space for reflection.
Co-hosted by The BTS Center and the Maine Council of Churches, this event is free and open to the public.
Selected words
from Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” 
“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.” 
"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."
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s handwritten notes, from The King Center Archive
A re-creation of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s cell in Birmingham Jail at the National Civil Rights Museum
We are pleased to partner with the Maine Council of Churches in co-hosting this important event.
The BTS Center | 207.774.5212 | |
Allen Ewing-Merrill
Executive Director
Nicole Diroff
Program Director
Kay Ahmed
Office Manager
 Our mission is to catalyze spiritual imagination with enduring wisdom for transformative faith leadership.
We equip and support faith leaders for theologically grounded and effective 21st-century ministries.