Sixty years later, King’s ‘Birmingham Jail letter’ resounds in Maine

Dustin Ward, 35, of New Gloucester, is an advocate for racial equity and reconciliation at It Is Time… LLC. He started the business to help organizations and individuals bring about change and end systemic racism. He will read part of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on Monday.. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

On April 16, 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter.

He had been arrested four days earlier for disobeying a court order banning protests in Birmingham, Alabama. From his jail cell, he wrote to eight white religious leaders who had publicly condemned the ongoing civil rights protests. He denounced the silence of white moderates and argued that racial violence demanded a more urgent response than those clerics had advised.

Sixty years have passed, but that message still rings true for Reverend Allen Ewing-Merrill. He is the executive director of the BTS Center, a nonprofit organization in Maine that offers theological programs. He rereads the letter each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and reflects on its call to be more courageous than cautious.

“We like to think of racism as this horrible thing other people do, the blatant violence of white supremacy,” he said. “But in the letter, Dr King really pulls the nuance and reminds us that racism is the violence of silence.”

This year, the Maine Council of Churches and the BTS Center have chosen the letter from birmingham jail for online reading to mark the holidays. King’s words will be read by eight people from Maine’s religious and social justice communities. For the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, four of the readers reflected on the passages they will recite during Monday’s event and the letter’s relevance to the modern world. These passages and readers’ comments are presented here.


Marpheen Chann, 31, is an activist from Portland and the author of a biography titled “Moon in Full: A Modern Day Coming-of-Age Story”. He works as the Community Impact Manager for the Good Shepherd Food Bank and sits on a number of local boards and organizations, including the Portland Planning Board. His mother came to Maine from Cambodia as a refugee and he is the president of Khmer Maine, a grassroots organization serving the Cambodian community in the state.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I’m sorry to say, does not express a similar concern for the conditions that prompted the protests. I’m sure none of you would want to settle for superficial social analysis that only deals with the effects and does not address the underlying causes. It is unfortunate that protests are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure has left no alternative for the black community.

Marpheen Chan, 31, an activist and author in Portland, says Dr King’s comments are reminiscent of more recent protests, such as those following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Chann said the letter reminded him of more recent protests — when a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, or when anti-Asian hate crimes spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. He thought of people who seemed more concerned about the protests themselves than the racism and trauma that caused them.

“In America, we want to do the quick thing, we want to do the easy thing, we want to get rid of it, we want to tackle the low-hanging fruit and the token stuff and call it good. But I think what’s really important, as Dr. King says in this letter, is that we need to go deeper and examine ourselves deeper.


Dustin Ward, 35, is a racial equity and reconciliation advocate at It Is Time… LLC. He started the company hoping to work with organizations and individuals to bring about change and end systemic racism. He was born in Florida, adopted as a baby and raised in Près Isle. He now lives in New Gloucester, where he is the first black to sit on the Select Board.

John Bunyan: “I will remain in prison until the end of my days before slaughtering my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

Ward said he heard about King every year at school during Black History Month, but realized his history lessons hadn’t covered the true scope of the movement. civil rights when a high school teacher showed a film about Malcolm X.

“It made me realize that there was more about who I am as a black individual and about civil rights in this country that I was unaware of. I wanted to know more.

Ward earned a master’s degree in theology and was working as a pastor in Maine in 2020 when a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. He wrote a call to action and hoped his congregation would rally behind him, but said he received backlash instead. He ultimately decided to leave the ministry and launched his business later that year. King’s words to his fellow clergy testify to Ward’s modern experience.

“The words I see him writing are an attempt to bring to light what I have constantly experienced in ministry, which is that sometimes white clergymen would believe that all is well. … We tried to avoid or not talk about the problem to say that we solved it. It’s traumatic and scary. I wanted to talk about it, we needed to talk about it, and so often there was this desire to be quiet about it.

“I love taking the opportunity to read this letter because every word you can pull into the current context and say, ‘we’re still dealing with this.'”


Andie Giraso, 16, a junior at Scarborough High School, will read part of Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ during an online event on Monday. King’s words ‘gave me the confidence to believe that we (this generation) can and will make a change,’ she says. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Andie Giraso, 16, is a student at Scarborough High School and President of the Civil Rights Club. She was born and raised in Rwanda and moved to Maine six years ago.

We know from painful experience that freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that is “right on time” in the eyes of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

Giraso said: “Growing up, racism never crossed my mind. I was constantly surrounded by people who looked and sounded like me. It wasn’t until I set foot in America that I witnessed the racial injustice that plagues our people.

“It is very important that we recognize the existence of racism in today’s society rather than ignoring it and pretending that it no longer exists. This is why I have chosen to speak out on behalf of those who are silenced in my community, and I hope to continue this work after I graduate from high school.

“I first read Dr King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ during my first year of high school. My first reaction to the letter was hope. It gave me hope to know that Dr. King was able to do what he did, especially at a time when racism and segregation were so normalized. It gave me the confidence to believe that we (this generation) can and will make a change. What struck me the most was that he said: “Freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. This means that if we want change, we must demand it.


Shirley Hager, 70, grew up in isolated North Carolina and was in high school when King was murdered. She now lives in Chesterville and is a retired associate professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

She is also one of the authors of a book published last year called “The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations.” Hager, who is white, is involved in supporting Wabanaki efforts for sovereignty in Maine. She reread “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to prepare for Monday’s event and was struck by the parallels with that effort.

My friends, I must tell you that we have not made a single civil rights gain without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Unfortunately, it is a historical fact that privileged groups rarely voluntarily give up their privileges. Individuals can see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust position; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

“’Groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.’ I think that’s what we see. We see individuals changing around this issue, and that includes individual legislators, but when it comes to the tipping point of the state actually giving up some of its power in the service of something much bigger, we let’s fail. Because privileged groups rarely give up their power. It’s hard to change systems, but that’s what we have to do.

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