by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.
Peace be with you! It is an honor to join my remarks with those of Rev. Jim Wallis and U.S. Representative John Lewis on this august occasion and to join with Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. King, whose presence honors this two-day event.
Letters deserve a response, and in fact, some demand one. Such is the letter that we gather to remember. Fifty years ago in this city of Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a letter, actually a reply to one that he had received from religious leaders at the time. Making use of the edges of newspapers and stubs of pencils available to him in the jail, Reverend King set out what has become a classic letter, quoting from Socrates to St. Paul and St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas. This letter, which is rich in foundations of scripture and human philosophy, direct, and prophetic, gave a rationale for strong action as well as marching orders for the steps we must follow to lift us, as the letter states, “from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Rightly, he uncovered the words of St. Thomas Aquinas that the unjust law is “the human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law” and so is, as Dr. King says, “out of harmony with the moral law.”
Though at that time I was only 16 and taking my seminary entrance examination in my home state of Pennsylvania, I can look back to his response to religious leaders of that day, who had cautioned him against action that they claimed was “unwise and untimely.” We now see clearly his response as true wisdom, whose time had long since come.
Such a letter deserves a response …