Sunday, January 20, 2013

Birmingham 1963

A year ago I posted an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. This morning The Rev. Stephen Muncie, Rector of Grace Church, read the letter to which Dr. King was responding. It was itself a response to the peaceful demonstrations, seeking an end to segregation and the extension of full civil rights to the descendants of slaves, that were going on in Birmingham, Alabama at the time. The letter counseled the demonstrators to have "patience" and to refrain from further public activities, condemned the influence of "outsiders," and commended the local media and law enforcement authorities for their "calm" response (see photo above). The letter was signed by C.C.J. Carpenter, then Episcopalian Bishop of Alabama, along with his Bishop Coadjutor, a Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop, two Methodist bishops, a Baptist minister, and a rabbi. The text of the letter, followed by Dr. King's letter, is here.

As I listened to Steve's sermon, I had a disquieting thought. If I had been in Bishop Carpenter's position at that time, I would have been tempted to sign that letter. Carpenter, as Steve told it, was no racist troglodyte. He had made statements supporting efforts to end discrimination against African Americans. In doing so, he was risking the displeasure of many, if not most, of the white Episcopalians in Alabama at that time. To have declared himself as supporting the demonstrators would have invited demands for his resignation or replacement. It would also have estranged him from his fellow white denominational leaders and from business and government leaders. My instinct in similar situations has been to try to find a via media, a way if not to please everyone at least to avoid utterly alienating anyone. My besetting sin has been to value tranquility over justice.

Update: for more on this subject, see Diane McWhorter's insightful column in today's New York Times.

Photo: K.C. Johnson, "From Brown to Birmingham"