As Martin Luther King day approaches, I wanted to re-read the letter he wrote from Birmingham Jail. The civil rights struggles of the 1960’s had a large impact on me. I was a student at Scattergood Friends School at the time, and deep into trying to understand my place in our society. The example of Quaker men refusing to participate in the military helped me realize I needed to look very closely at my decisions related to war, conscription, conscientious objection and draft resistance. I was being forced to make a choice because of the law requiring young men to register with the Selective Service System on their 18th birthday.
I read everything I could find about this, and spent a lot of time praying. It was very clear that this choice would profoundly affect the direction of the rest of my life. Those who weren’t alive during this time probably can’t grasp what a violent and chaotic time it was in our country. Almost 3 million American men, nearly 10% of our generation, served in Vietnam. Television, a relatively new appliance in most American homes, daily showed black and white pictures and video from Vietnam.
College campuses were in an uproar. A series of national Moratorium Days Against the Vietnam war occurred in 1969, which Scattergood students and staff participated in. May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students protesting the war at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine others.
At the same time the civil rights struggle was going on. There were obvious parallels between the antiwar and the civil rights movements. Muhammad Ali refused to register for the Selective Service System in 1967. Part of what he said was ““Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Martin Luther King also saw the parallels. “To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.” He was criticized by many in the civil rights movement for doing so. “Let me say finally that I oppose the War in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world.”
The Letter from Birmingham Jail was written during this time, in 1963. King was in solitary confinement, arrested for not having a permit for a peaceful anti-segregation march. Segregation laws were part of the Jim Crow system. The letter was partly written to respond to criticism by some in the civil rights movement about his tactics of using nonviolence and civil disobedience.
These memories have returned often in recent years as I have had occasions to travel south, through the cities of Birmingham, Montgomery and Atlanta. And while visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr, memorial while in Washington, DC.
You can find copies of the letter multiple places online. While searching for that, I came across the audio of King reading the speech, which I find very powerful.