The Sound of Justice—A Reminder from Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham City Jail

On this past Saturday, I was blessed to be the keynote speaker for the South Holland, Illinois Annual Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This tribute service had as its theme, Lift Every Voice.  Today I share this post based on that presentation as my tribute to Dr. King as we celebrate his birthday.


In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined with the local civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama called the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in a mass campaign to attack Birmingham’s segregation system.  Racial segregation was inscribed in the legal code and included but was not limited to segregated public facilities marked by “Whites only” and “Blacks only” signs in restrooms and on drinking fountains; segregated lunch counters; policies that discriminated against black in employment, particularly, and other economic mechanisms generally.

Dr. King led a series of anti-segregation actions including mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, marches, a Boycott of downtown merchants, kneel-ins, sit-ins, and a campaign to register voters.

The City government obtained a court injunction against the protests and Dr. King and the other campaign leaders debated whether to obey the court ordered injunction or to continue to protest. Dr. King declared: “We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process.”

On Good Friday, April 12, Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham after violating the anti-protest injunction and was kept in solitary confinement. According to Stanford University’s King Encyclopedia, “On the day of his arrest, eight white Birmingham clergy members wrote a criticism of the campaign that was published in the Birmingham News, calling the campaign ‘unwise and untimely’.” And they appealed “to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

In response Dr. King penned a letter from his jail cell[i]. His letter is what justice sounds like and is a model for us today to lift up our voice in the cause of love and justice for all people.

Dr. King courageously lifted his voice to advance what is right and just. Know that it takes courage to lift up your voice for the cause of justice. There may be backlash, but we must be willing to speak up for what is right.  My heart was particularly crestfallen last week when reports came out about the disparaging remarks the President of the United States made about Haiti and African countries using curse words and racist commentary. Those comments were especially vile as NY Times columnists, Jina Moore and Catherine Porter noted, “In Haiti, particularly, the words were greeted with pain, as the country marked the eighth anniversary of the deadly 2010 earthquake — known as the worst natural disaster of modern history, killing between 230,000 and 316,000 people and leaving 1.5 million homeless.” But I was even more disheartened that no one in that room had the courage to lift their voice and address the president’s racist words. It turns out, according to several articles published on Saturday, Republican senator Lindsay Graham, apparently gave an impassioned plea in defense of immigrants in that meeting in response to the president’s words. It takes courage to lift your voice in the pursuit and support of justice. I pray more of our leaders summon the courage to do so.

Dr. King lifted his voice in concert with the prophetic tradition. He called out Birmingham because “injustice is here” he wrote. He noted: “Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns. I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.”  Prophets make leaders uncomfortable. And know that we too, when speaking up for what is right, will make people uncomfortable; but we must lift our voices.

Dr. King lifted his voice in solidarity and interconnectedness. He said: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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 us all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.” Furthermore, we live in a global interconnected world. And what happens in any one country in this world affects people in other countries. We in the US cannot let nativism and insularity isolate us from the rest of the world. We must never forget we are interconnected with men and women from across the world, across party lines, across racial and cultural lines and across belief systems. We may not agree on issues, but we are interconnected and have got to figure out a way to work it out without destroying each other in the process.

Dr. King lifted his voice to call out the hypocrisy of the white clergy leaders of Birmingham. He wrote, “you deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”  This reminds me of how so many people were appalled to see professional football players using their platform to protest police brutality and were not nearly as appalled at the cause of violence against black men and women.

King went on to say, “I am sure each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes.” He went on to write, “I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” He went on to lay out the facts of Birmingham’s “ugly record of police brutality; its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts, the fact that there were more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches. We too must push beyond the hypocritical surface analysis and dig deep to the historical root causes of today’s injustices.

Dr. King lifted his voice strategically. Dr. King led a movement that was strategic and well-planned. He laid out the four basic steps of any nonviolent campaign in general, but specifically the campaign they were conducting in Birmingham:

  • Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive
  • Negotiation
  • Self-purification
  • Direct action

As he laid out the facts he showed, “we did not move irresponsibly into direct action.” This four-fold approach to any campaign is still a solid foundation for us today. We must be strategic in our fight for justice.

Dr. King lifted his voice against the privileged. He wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, he goes on to write, “I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well-timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” In other words, when a person has the privilege of eating at any lunch counter, can drink from any water fountain, has employment opportunities and economic choices, then that person, if not in touch with his or her own privilege will more often than not, work to maintain the status quo that inscribes and legitimatizes his or her privilege and excludes those who are not so privileged. We, too, must get in touch with our own privilege and open our eyes to the plight of others not so privileged.

Dr. King lifted his voice in response to the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age. He was stirred up by the urgent movement toward freedom for racially oppressed people that was happening across the world. “Oppressed people”, he wrote, “cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.” I believe we are experiencing another zeitgeist moment with the #MeToo movement. It’s taken 20 years to build from Tarana Burk’s first encounter with a 13 year old girl who was sexually assaulted to build solidarity across race and gender to say too many have experienced sexual assault. But movements grow as more people lift their voice in concert with what is right. We are in the midst of a justice movement.

Dr. King lifted his voice to redefine labels. The white clergy called him and the other leaders of the movement extremist.  Dr. King wrote,” As I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love—Love your enemies, bless them what curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” He continued, “Was not Amos an extremist for justice—‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”  We must move beyond the labels and speak up for what is right.



Dr. King, in writing to the white clergy in Birmingham, did something that was ingenious, he lifted up his voice in favor not only of racial integration and fairness in our structures but he lifted his voice to advocate for an integration of personal piety and social justice.

Dr. King argued that the religious institutions and leaders instead of being some of “our strongest allies, have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement, and misrepresenting its leaders. All too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” King wrote, “I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause; and with deep concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure.” It’s as though the religious leadership failed to see the connection between their religious rituals and their social actions.

You see, churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious and moral centers that teach a personal piety without the commensurate social piety fail. I am amazed at how many people can separate their religious piety from the causes of justice that affect their neighbors.  Too often we are blind to justice when the issue doesn’t affect us and I wonder:

  • Why can’t so many good and well-meaning people hear and empathize with our Mexican sisters and brothers who takes offense at their entire country being labelled as rapists and thugs?
  • Why can’t more people hear and empathize with the white rural chronically unemployed who feels as though they got left behind in the technology boom?
  • Why can’t our leader empathize with the DACA Dreamer brought to this country as a child and has thoroughly been socialized as an US American and support renewing DACA?
  • Why can’t lawmakers empathize with the millions of children who have lost health care because CHIP has not been renewed?
  • Why can’t all people hear and empathize with young activists who chant black lives matter in response to rising deaths of young black men at the hands of policemen. Of course, all lives matter, that is a given. (And yes, “blue lives matter, and all cops are not racist). The call came to make sure that black lives were included in the all lives because verdict after verdict sent the message that black lives did not matter.
  • Why did it take a mass movement of celebrity women saying #Metoo for the masses to believe that sexual assault is real and sexual violence happens all too often?

And worse yet, not only have we too often failed to empathize with or see the plight of the other, too many have failed to speak up and lift their voice on behalf of the oppressed. I contend we will never be able to lift our voices on behalf of stuff we can’t see because of our own biases and filters that keep us stuck on the status quo or our own privilege.

When Dr. King in his Letter from the Birmingham jail invoked the prophet Amos, he called upon the ancient prophetic tradition that stood for justice, called powerful leaders to task for injustices, and challenged hypocritical religious rituals as missing the heart of God if those religious practices did not lead to the fair treatment of others—but especially the poor and vulnerable ones in a society. God’s will, the prophets declared, was for justice and righteousness to prevail in the social order as an expressed outward sign of their religious devotion.

At the time Amos writes, the nation was experiencing a period of prosperity and with that heightened prosperity came increased mistreatment of the most vulnerable of their society. And Amos cried out on God’s behalf

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV)


The Hebrew word translated as justice in this passage is mishpat and occurs over 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Bible Project, mishpat can stand for retributive justice (i.e., if I steal something I must pay the consequences) or restorative justice (going a step further, actively seeking out the vulnerable people who are being taken advantage of and helping the them). Mishpat or restorative justice means taking steps to advocate for the vulnerable and changing social structures to prevent injustice.



The Hebrew word for righteousness is tsdaqah and can be translated as righteousness or justice. So, in this Amos passage that Dr. King quoted, there is really a double emphasis on calling for justice in response to the personal sins of its leaders and people and the national sins that further beat down the poor. Yet they bragged on how religious they were. They argued we bring or sacrifice to honor God and God in essence said, your sacrifices don’t honor me if they don’t cause you to honor humanity.

Yet, we today, too often do the same thing. Too many people today hear the word justice in a legal or social sense and see righteousness as personal piety or holiness.  Yet in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, they were inextricably linked.  There is no bifurcation or dichotomy or separation between the social and the personal; the individual and the structural.

Daniel Hill, a Christian Pastor of River City Church and author of White Awake, put it well in his blog post, The Biblical confusion between the words ‘justice and righteousness’ writes “when understood fully, righteousness and justice mean something very similar. Right living will lead us to the pursuit of justice. The pursuit of justice demands righteous living. They both are reflective of the character of God, and they are both dependent on each other.  Jesus has come to make us righteous before God and Jesus has come to call us to right living. Jesus has come to satisfy the justice of God and Jesus has come to call us to a just society.” You can’t have one without the other.

For me justice and righteousness are different sides of the same coin and are held together by love. They are symbiotic. They build on each other. Worship brings us into the presence of God and draws us closer to the heart of God and justice is at the heart of God.


So, what does justice sound like?


Justice according to the prophet Amos sounds like a mighty flood that roars and overflows its bank. According to Amos, justice sounds like torrents of water. According to Amos, justice sounds like spring of water bubbling over a rocky river bed.



I can’t help but believe that when people of good will and compassion toward others unify and lift our voices together and in concert, justice will sound like the roar of waters.

Scholar and preacher Michael Eric Dyson in his book, Tears we Cannot Stop, puts it most profoundly, when he wrote “in response to the idolatry of racism [and I would add sexism, classism and other isms] and the cloak of the innocence that tries to shield it—injustice can only be quenched by love, but not merely or evenly primarily by a private, personal notion of love but a public expression of love that holds us all accountable.

Dyson poignantly proclaimed, “justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public.” Well, I am turning it around for us today and saying, justice sounds like love in action.


Justice sounds like love in action in public and private. Justice sounds like love in action in words and deed; in ritualistic programs and righteous policies.

Justice sound like love in action when one speaks publicly about others and privately in our homes and churches with people who look like us when referring to others who do not look like us.

Justice sounds like love in action that holds dear the image of God in the other and treats others as beloved creations of God.

Justice sounds like the clanking tin in the soup kitchen feeding the hungry, and giving water to the thirsty and the calls to address the underlying causes and policies that keep people hungry in a country of gross abundance.

Justice sounds like the cheerful welcome to the stranger and the actionable support of the refugee who finds herself in a strange land.

Justice sounds like the unpacking of donated clothing to give to the naked and actions to support livable wages.

Justice sounds like the inspirational messages shared with prisoners and the calls to action that address the disparities in the prison system that has led to disproportionate incarceration of black and brown people.

Justice sounds like the chatter emanating from ex-offender re-entry classes, and calls to addresses the legal system that disenfranchises ex-offenders thus denying them vote and voice.

Justice sounds like prayers for the sick and calls to address the health care system where millions are or will be left without affordable health care.

Today I celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King who lifted his voice in the cause of justice as he spoke out against “the triple evils of systemic injustice –poverty, racism and militarism.” Today, I appeal to each of us to not just annually honor him but with our lives and voices, live out the legacy of justice and righteousness Dr. King led, lived and died for. Together our uplifted voices will be the sound of justice.



[i]  Martin King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In James M. Washington (ed.), A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York:HarperCollins, 1986.


© 2018 Dr. Jeanne Porter King


1 Comment

  1. Yvette Sledge

    I enjoyed your speech at the MLK festival. The history you reminded us of Martin’s journey as stated is still relevant today for us/those that stand up for injustice. Unfortunately 45 is pushing to make the struggle even more difficult. Thank you

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