dr king sits in a birmingham jail cell with the words of his letter superimposed in the background and the words oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever west angeles church los angeles

Dr. King Reminds Us That Jesus Was A Radical

In his letter from a Birmingham jail, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us that Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and Abraham Lincoln among others, were considered radicals in their day. 

In a culture now over-saturated with political labels, celebrity, social media, and soundbites, it’s easy to gloss over – or dismiss – Rev. King’s message of non-violent change as a “passive” or “weak.”  Many assume that his desire to see God’s children of all races and faiths, standing side by side as equals in America, as stated at the end of his August 1963 “I Have A Dream” Speech, was somehow an impassioned appeal for a “colorblind society”. But Rev. King’s 20-page letter, written while confined to a jail cell months before in Birmingham, Alabama, gives us an insight into the true roots, purpose, and fundamentals of the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King Reminds Us That Jesus Was A Radical – Dr. Benjamin Spock marches with Dr. King in protest of the Vietnam War, 1967. Photo, Agence France-Presse.


The Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University has in its archives Rev. King’s original letter written from Birmingham City Jail, dated April 16, 1963.  The letter was addressed to 7 white Alabama Christian and Jewish clergymen who had criticized Dr. King’s actions.  They’d labeled him as an “extremist”, and stated publicly that Black Americans must wait for justice.

The letter is Dr. King’s response.  The 34-year-old Reverend holds a scathing mirror to the paternalistic position of his fellow clergymen, and to the lukewarm heart of the church.  Dr. King asks for an account of their silence while black homes and churches in Alabama were bombed, and an examination of their lack of commitment to the cause of “freedom and justice for all.”

In other topics addressed in the letter, Dr. King:

  • reveals the careful planning process of the Alabama demonstrations,
  • examines the immorality of unjust laws, and
  • notes that, for the American Negro, waiting for 340 years for constitutional and God-given rights is, in reality, “justice denied.”

Dr. King Reminds Us That Jesus Was A Radical – This excerpt from Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” reveals the zeal of the early Christian church. Courtesy, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University.


Reverend King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail” is notable in another way which connects us to today.  The clergy that he addresses in the letter had labeled him as an “extremist”, something which Dr. King at first took issue with.  However, upon introspection, he realizes that many others who demanded change on earth in God’s name were also seen as such:

  • The Apostle Paul, who said “I bear in my body the marks of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:17);
  • President Abraham Lincoln, who declared, “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free”; and
  • President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “all men were created equal” when he penned the Declaration of Independence.

Dr. King Reminds Us That Jesus Was A Radical – A 25-year-old John Lewis is flanked by Catholic priests and nuns during the 1965 march, this time in Selma, Alabama. Lewis was just recovering from his wounds, having been beaten by police just days before during the Edmund Pettus Bridge /”Bloody Sunday” march. This photo was taken 2 years after Dr. King penned his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”; by this time, clergy had joined the Movement from all over the United States. Image: Stephen Somerstein.

But Rev. King also reminds us in his letter that Jesus was also seen as an extremist in His day: an extremist for love and truth Who transcended His environment.  He reminds the clergy that the early church, in standing up for Christ, did not merely go along with the status-quo, but that they “got in the way”, as Congressman John Lewis would say.  The believers in the early church disturbed the governments and the established power structure, and put them on notice.  So zealous was their love for God’s truth and justice that they transformed society wherever they went.

Rev. King sends an appeal to the heart of the church; saying that change in our nation and in the world requires its “creative extremists” to arise.  His letter also shines a glaring light on America today; exposing many promises of the Civil Rights Movement as still largely unrealized and unfulfilled for African Americans.  Maybe the most poignant call-to-action which the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. presents in his letter which each of us must ask ourselves today is:

What kind of “creative extremist” will each of us be?


To read the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s entire 1963 letter from Birmingham City jail please CLICK HERE.West Angeles LOGO

Initiated by The King Center in Atlanta, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project is an endeavor of Stanford University’s King Institute.  It is one of only a few large-scale research ventures focusing on an African American.  SEE THE COMPLETE 20-PAGE LETTER BY DR. KING HERE: http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf