In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written behind bars 50 years ago this week, Martin Luther King invokes God 15 times and mentions the words “Christ” or “Christian” 21 times. But he refers to “law” 41 times — more than both of them combined — and thereby hangs a lesson.
King was a Baptist minister and a scholar of theology. He had come to Birmingham with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to head a nonviolent protest against the city’s rigid segregation, and he wasn’t the only pastor jailed for disregarding a ban on civil rights demonstrations. In an open letter to the local paper, a group of white religious leaders had publicly criticized the sit-ins, warning that such “extreme measures” — which were “led in part by outsiders” — were apt to “incite … hatred and violence.” King read the ministers’ statement after he was arrested. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was his response.