MLK Jr. Wrote From Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

by James M. Wall

Another day, another Donald Trump tweet. This one came Thursday, August 17, a few hours after a van plowed into a crowd on the Barcelona pedestrian mall of Las Ramblas, Spain.

The Islamic state claimed credit for the attack. President Trump tweeted, via iPhone:

Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017

The Atlantic debunked the story:

It seemed to be a reference to a story Trump told at campaign rallies during the 2016 primaries, which in turn was a garbled version of an Islamophobic meme that has made its way around the internet for years.

In the fable, the legendary U.S. General John J. Pershing once ended a wave of Muslim terrorism in the Philippines by executing prisoners with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. Other superstitious fighters were so terrified by the prospect of being killed while touching part of a forbidden animal, the story goes, that fighting immediately stopped, for some period of time.

(For 25 years, Trump said at a North Charleston, South Carolina, rally in February 2016; a few weeks later, in Costa Mesa, California, it had jumped up to 42.)

This story of General Pershing and Pig Blood, is not only false; it also reveals Trump’s ability to continually lie to evoke applause and cheers for himself.

The Pershing false story is also an ugly demonstration of Trump’s repeated use of Islamophobia as a political tool. It is a statement of injustice.

Polling indicates the base which provides the applause and cheers he craves, has dropped into the lower 30 percent approval rating.

Trump did not cause this moral collapse. He found it sitting there, waiting for someone with his bravado and narcissism to turn the public’s innate fear of others into a narrow political upset.

The metaphor which I find best addresses the phenomenon of Donald Trump, is the school yard bully who gains power through force and intimidation.

In my faith tradition, Joshua 24:15, gives the declaration of how best to confront and reject the school yard bully, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”.

Others, who follow a different faith, or no organized faith, find their moral center in different ways, choosing between  good and evil from a center that will not yield to easy exploitation of their weaknesses.

How Trump responded to Charlottesville, with his “both sides” comment, was the lowest point in a series of his political low points, beginning with the racist “birther” nonsense at the start of his presidential campaign.

CNN reported on Charlottesville:

A group of white supremacists — screaming racial, ethnic and misogynistic epithets — rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, August 19. One person was killed and 19 others were injured when a car sped into a group of counter-protesters.

This is what the President of the United States said about it:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.”

. . . It’s hard to imagine a less presidential statement in a time in which the country looks to its elected leader to stand up against intolerance and hatred. . . .

Both sides don’t scream racist and anti-Semitic things at people with whom they disagree. They don’t base a belief system on the superiority of one race over others. They don’t get into fistfights with people who don’t see things their way. They don’t create chaos and leave a trail of injured behind them.

We have reached a point in our national distress where we need a moral leader like Martin Luther King, Jr., ready to lead others into a revolt against the absence of a moral center in the nation.

The churches of King’s era, the 1960s, engaged with great strength in battles against the Vietnam War and for women’s equality. Racial inequality, in contrast, was treated gingerly. Church leaders were slow to confront the racial status quo.

On August 27, 2009, I wrote a Wall Writings posting which looked back to a time when  Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell, writing a letter on April, 16, 1963, to Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders in Birmingham.

In June 1963, the Christian Century was the first large-circulation magazine to publish the full text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

King addressed them as “My Dear Fellow Clergymen” since they were all duly recognized as clergy leaders (five of them were bishops) and they were all male.

In his letter,  he wrote:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. . . .

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 all indirectly. . .

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”

“Go slow; our people are not ready”. The church mantra of the 1960s was immoral then; it is immoral in 2017.

What can we do about Trump? We can start where we have leverage. With strong moral leaders we must begin to build a movement as passionate and active as Donald Trump’s base.

We need a collection of new Martin Luther Kings, Jr., leaders who believe “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice”, and are willing to go to jail in defense of that conviction.

♦ ♦♦♦

Finally, a personal note:

On August 13, my wife, Mary Eleanor Wall, fell on her side and suffered serious bruises. Fortunately, she has no broken bones. The bruises have landed her in a walker and wheel chair, which I push.

My role as care-giver will require that Wall Writings appear infrequently during her recovery period. 

The picture above of Martin Luther King, Jr., in jail, is from USINFO Photo Gallery.


About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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4 Responses to MLK Jr. Wrote From Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

  1. Robert Assaly says:

    Thanks Jim. Well said.
    Is it time for an intelligent Church leader to step up to the electoral plate?

  2. J. Martin Bailey says:


    I recall when the Century published King’s letter…and the way it shook up the young United Church of Christ…and the way I relied on Andy Young (with whom I had worked in the National Council of Churches before the UCC Home Mission board sent him to Birmingham) for insight. As it turned out the first issue of the Herald under my editorship ran a photo of Andy “Our Man In Birmingham.” Those were tense days, especially for Northerners like me with no experience in the South. But MLK was not only a visionary and a risk taker; he had the ability to say hard things with a warmth that was inviting. We have learned much from his life and death. And we need a leader like him (or even like Andy) on the American church scene today. I am afraid I see none.

    Mart Bailey

  3. As always, Jim, a good analysis of a trying time.

  4. AWAD SIFRI says:


    Many thanks for your latest insight. MLK is a hero of mine. And so are Nelson Mendella and Desmond Tutu.


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