Martin, Malcolm, and Henry

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

“There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

“Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are.

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

[from this site, accessed 19 January 2008.]

The second reading is from the essay “On Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau:

“Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her—the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned from office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.


Tomorrow is the day we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. You all know the story of Martin Luther King: how he came to be one of the central leaders in the fight against desegregation here in the United States; how he fought nonviolently for true equality for African Americans; how he was finally assassinated, killed because he was too successful. You all know equally well how the fight for true equality for African Americans has not yet been won; how racial discrimination continues in many diverse and insidious forms here in the United States; and you know that many of us try to continue the struggle for true equality and an end to discrimination.

Thus, for many of us Martin Luther King’s birthday has become a day to reflect on the ongoing struggle to end discrimination, and to reflect on how we ourselves might continue that struggle. That is what I’d like to do this morning; and since we are in a church, I’d like to reflect on certain religious aspects of the struggle to end discrimination. But I’m going to pursue a somewhat unusual path: instead of just focusing on Dr. King, I’m going to tell you three stories about Dr. King and about two other Americans who fought for freedom in their own ways: Malcolm X, and Henry David Thoreau.

Each of these three Americans were similar, because each one of them engaged in a little bit of rebellion; that’s what I’d like to talk with you about today, rebellion. Most of American religion has not been particularly friendly towards rebellion. Most American religions possess a rather hierarchical idea of the universe, with God in charge at the top of the hierarchy, and all the rest of us somewhere a good bit lower down than God. With this hierarchical idea of the universe comes the notion that rebellion is dangerous, because if rebellion gets out of hand, it could escalate and even threaten God’s role at the very top of the hierarchy. And so my purpose in telling these three stories will be to show how and when rebellion might be, not a threat to the cosmological order of the universe, but rather a means to save the world and save ourselves.


I’ll begin with the easiest story to tell, the story about Martin Luther King, about why he went to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, how he wound up in jail there, and why he felt moved to write the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

In 1963, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, was heavily segregated. African Americans faced plenty of discrimination in Birmingham in those days: less than a tenth of all black citizens were registered to vote; blacks earned, on average, about half of what whites earned; and the downtown businesses enforced strict segregation, even to having segregated lunch counters. Since you have to start somewhere in the fight for equality, the black leadership of the city decided to start by concentrating on the segregation in downtown businesses. They called for boycotts, which cause declines of more than a third in downtown business. The city retaliated by withholding tens of thousands of dollars in aid to poor black families. The black community responded with a six-week total boycott of all downtown businesses. The city government retaliated again: Bull Connor, a strict segregationist and the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, told downtown businesses that if they did not obey the city’s segregation laws, he would take away their business licenses.

At this point, the black leadership of the city decided to get confrontational, and engage in civil disobedience. Wyatt Tee Walker, then executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, dubbed the movement “Project C” — the “C” stood for “Confrontation.” The black leadership in Birmingham called on Martin Luther King to come and participate in these acts of civil disobedience, and he came. Black citizens picketed, they staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, kneel-ins in segregated white churches, and other actions that aimed to get so many black citizens arrested that they would overwhelm the police force and force the city to take action against desegregation. The city responded by banning all protests by black citizens — a clearly unconstitutional act — the city would stop at nothing to keep segregation in place.

On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King himself was arrested. He was held in the Birmingham Jail, where he was not allowed to call his wife, who had just given birth to their fourth child; nor was he allowed to consult a lawyer unless prison guards were present. While he was in jail, eight prominent white clergymen wrote a public letter chastising King for engaging in civil disobedience. These white clergymen pointed out the dangers of King’s actions, and called on King and all African Americans in Birmingham to “observe the principles of law and order and common sense”; they called his actions “unwise and untimely.”

King sat in the Birmingham jail and wrote a letter to these eight clergymen, and we heard an excerpt from this letter in the first reading this morning. In one of the most famous passages from the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote: “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’.” This was King’s justification for engaging in “unntimely” and rebellious civil disobedience: if he waited for justice to take its course, he might well wait forever. So it is that Dr. King engaged in rebellion; rebellion against unjust laws; rebellion against the white sense of timeliness. He was called to rebel against human laws in order to save the world.


The second story I would like to tell this morning has to do with an act of civil disobedience that helped to inspire Martin Luther King.

Henry David Thoreau lived most of his life in his parents’ house in Concord, Massachusetts. His mother, Cynthia Thoreau, was an Abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Henry helped his mother send fugitive slaves towards the North Star; and his biographer, Walter Harding, has said that Henry Thoreau probably met every prominent Abolitionist of the day “across his mother’s dining table” (Days of Henry Thoreau p 201)

Henry Thoreau was friendly with Bronson Alcott, another resident of Concord, Massachusetts, a prominent Abolitionist, and the father of Louisa May Alcott. In 1843, Bronson Alcott, like some other Abolitionists, refused to pay the Massachusetts poll tax as a protest against a government that supported slavery. A prominent citizen of the town of Concord paid Bronson’s poll tax for him, rather than see him go to jail. But Bronson’s action planted a seed in Henry Thoreau’s heart, and by 1846 Henry decided that he would refuse to pay his own poll tax as a protest against slavery. In late July, 1846, Thoreau was living out at Walden Pond, and he came into town one day to run an errand. Sam Staples, the town constable, told Henry that he had better pay his poll tax or Sam would have to put him in jail; Henry told Sam that he guessed that in that case Sam had better put him in jail; which is just what Same did.

There’s an apocryphal story that Ralph Waldo Emerson came to town that day and saw Henry in jail, and said, “Henry, what are you doing in jail?” to which Henry replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out of jail?” Thoreau knew he had to go to jail to save his own self-respect, to save his own soul.

Henry Thoreau spent only one night in jail, because the next day someone paid his poll tax for him. It is safe to say that Henry Thoreau did not risk as much when he went to jail, as Martin Luther King risked when he went to jail. Thoreau was a white man in a white town and he came from a comfortably middle-class and respectable family; he did not risk beatings and intimidation and death threats the way Dr. King did. Yes, Thoreau further damaged his already tarnished reputation among other Concord residents, and I don’t want to diminish that damage; as someone who lived the first forty-two years of his life in a small town, I can attest to the pettiness and small-mindedness that can poison life in a small town; but risking that is very different than risking your life.

What makes Thoreau’s experience important is that it prompted him to write his most famous essay, “On Civil Disobedience.” In that essay, he distinguishes between human laws and justice, saying, “Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice.” Thoreau also that honest people sometimes have to “rebel and revolutionize.” So it is that there are times when we have to obey higher laws and rebel against human laws; only in so rebelling can we save the world; maybe that’s the only we can save our own souls as well.


Now we come to the third story, which also briefly involves a jail in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1946, a young man named Malcolm Little was arrested for burglary. He was sentenced and spent a night or two in the jail in Concord, Massachusetts, before being transferred to his ultimate prison destination. Malcolm Little had been a small-time criminal who had drifted through life without much purpose or direction. But while in prison he discovered books, and his mental horizons expanded. He also discovered Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which prompted him to engage in some critical thinking about the nature of racism in America.

By the time he was released from prison in 1952, Malcolm Little was following the thinking of Elijah Muhammad, and spoke of white people as “white devils” who would one day return to subjugation under the black man. He went off live in Chicago near Elijah Muhammad, and under Muhammad’s influence changed his name to Malcolm X, thus shedding what Muhammad called his “slave name,” the name that his family had had imposed on them by some white slave owner.

Malcolm X remained with the Nation of Islam as a high-ranking official until 1963. But then he discovered that Elijah Muhammad was having extramarital affairs with young women, even though this was explicitly forbidden by the tenets of their religion. Malcolm X confronted Elijah Muhammad, who basically told Malcolm not to question his authority. Malcolm X decided he could not obey a hypocrite and adulterer, that he had to obey the higher laws of his religion; and so he left the Nation of Islam.

By 1964, Malcolm X was deepening his study of Islam, and he began to question the version of Islam he had learned from Elijah Muhammad. In particular, Malcolm noted that Muslims throughout the world deemed the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, as one of the Five Pillars of Islam; but Elijah Muhammad said the hajj was unnecessary. Malcolm decided to find out for himself, he decided to follow his own quest for truth; he rebelled against the orthodoxy he had gotten from the Nation of Islam, and made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

While he was at Mecca, he discovered a great truth about racial harmony. He found himself on hajj, on pilgrimage, with Muslims of all races, of all skin colors. While he had already been developing a sense of the oneness of humanity, during that great and holy pilgrimage, as he stood side-by-side with white people, black people, brown people, people of all colors, it seems to me that Malcolm came to a deep realization of what oneness truly meant. In his “Autobiography,” co-written with Alex Haley, Malcolm said, “The earth’s most expensive and pernicious evil is racism, the inability of God’s creatures to live as One, especially in the Western world.” Malcolm’s rebellion against the orthodoxy he had received from others, led him past the narrow opinions of others and into a profound understanding of the oneness of all humanity.


Each of these three people — Martin Luther King, Henry David Thoreau, and Malcolm X — had to rebel against the opinions and judgments of those who surrounded them. Martin Luther King was criticized by those eight white clergymen for stirring up trouble in Birmingham, Alabama; but he rose above their opinions, and allowed himself to be led by higher laws. Henry David Thoreau had to face the opinions of people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience “mean and skulking, and in bad taste”; but he rose above such opinions, and allowed himself to be led by higher laws. Malcolm X had to face the adverse opinions of the Nation of Islam, and was eventually assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam; but Malcolm rose above all that, to assert the essential oneness of all humanity over and above the evils of racism.

In each case, each of these three engaged in an act of rebellion; both Martin and Malcolm explicitly rebelled against the opinions of religious leaders. Religion has too often been used to keep people from the truth; to force an orthodoxy on us that keeps us from thinking for ourselves, that keeps us from perceiving eternal truths. William R. Jones, the African American humanist theologian and Unitarian Universalist minister, has written that rebellion can be soteriologically authentic; translating that out of theological jargon, Dr. Jones is telling us that sometimes we have to rebel in order to save the world and to save our own souls.

The consequences of rebellion can be severe. Henry Thoreau was marginalized by his community, and garnered little fame or respect during his lifetime. Malcolm X was assassinated because he dared to proclaim the oneness of humanity. Martin Luther King was assassinated for his work against racism. But I would suggest that what we learn from the example of each of these three great human beings is that the consequences for not rebelling might be equally severe: the loss of one’s essential humanity. But sometimes we must risk rebellion in order to save our humanity, in order to save the world.