On April 16, 1963, from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set out to answer his critics — not Bull Connor, not the KKK, but eight lukewarm fellow clergymen from Alabama. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his response to the published statement of these clergymen who condemned King’s actions as “unwise and untimely.”
King, as a fourth-generation preacher of the gospel, made the argument he had grown up believing, “the time is always ripe to do right.” He knew well the great lesson of the Good Samaritan. He knew too of our Lord’s example. Jesus healed the shriveled right hand of a man who was in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He asked, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” The Pharisees and religious leaders were furious. It wasn’t the time or place, they reasoned. Jesus, however, could do something for the man and he did it.
King was well aware of the injustices of the Jim Crow South. The eight white clergy, on the other hand, could afford, in priest and Levite fashion, to walk on by without noticing the plight of their black brothers and sisters.
In the words of King, “the time is always ripe to do right.” King wrote, “You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people.”
King understood what it was like to “take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored.’”
The time was ripe and the moderates could call him extremist if they chose to, but that’s how the critics viewed Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. That’s how they viewed the prophets like Amos, who worked diligently for social justice. That’s how they viewed the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and, of course, Jesus too.
“The time is always ripe to do right.” God’s word declares what right is. Now is the time for each of us to put it into practice — to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The time is ripe! It always is!
Ken Haskins is pastor of First Christian Church in Carson City.