Another condemnation of racist policing will ring out on the Senate floor Tuesday, as lawmakers stand up to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Sen. Doug Jones will lead the bipartisan reading, after organizing a similar performance last year. The new tradition pushes back against a much older one: quoting King’s words willy-nilly, without context.
Most people know the famous bits, like “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Fewer people have read the 6,800-word letter from beginning to end, or heard its full critique.
“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” King wrote in 1963, blasting those “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
Police arrested the civil rights leader in Birmingham after he marched against segregation without a permit. Some of his colleagues in the clergy praised the police for upholding the law.
King rejected their thirst for order without justice. “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,” he wrote.
Instead, he “watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
Led by Jones and introduced by Tim Scott, the reading will begin at 3 p.m. Both Democrats (Sherrod Brown, Tammy Duckworth) and Republicans (John Kennedy, James Lankford, Mitt Romney) will participate.
Last year’s reading featured a similar split, with three Democrats (Jones, Kamala Harris, Tim Kaine) joining three colleagues across the aisle (Lamar Alexander, Ted Cruz, Lisa Murkowski).