Interesting Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is Martin Luther King’s most famous written text, and rivals his most celebrated speech, ‘ I Have a Dream ’, for its political importance and rhetorical power.

King wrote this open letter in April 1963 while he was imprisoned in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama. When he read a statement issued in the newspaper by eight of his fellow clergymen, King began to compose his response, initially writing it in the margins of the newspaper article itself.

In ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, King answers some of the criticisms he had received from the clergymen in their statement, and makes the case for nonviolent action to bring about an end to racial segregation in the South. You can read the letter in full here if you would like to read King’s words before reading on to our summary of his argument, and analysis of the letter’s meaning and significance.

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’: summary

The letter is dated 16 April 1963. King begins by addressing his ‘fellow clergymen’ who wrote the statement published in the newspaper. In this statement, they had criticised King’s political activities ‘unwise and untimely’. King announces that he will respond to their criticisms because he believes they are ‘men of genuine good will’.

King outlines why he is in Birmingham: as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he was invited by an affiliate group in Birmingham to engage in a non-violent direct-action program: he accepted. When the time came, he honoured his promise and came to Birmingham to support the action.

But there is a bigger reason for his travelling to Birmingham: because injustice is found there, and, in a famous line, King asserts: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ The kind of direction action King and others have engaged in around Birmingham is a last resort because negotiations have broken down and promises have been broken.

When there is no alternative, direct action – such as sit-ins and marches – can create what King calls a ‘tension’ which will mean that a community which previously refused to negotiate will be forced to come to the negotiating table. King likens this to the ‘tension’ in the individual human mind which Socrates, the great classical philosopher, fostered through his teachings.

Next, King addresses the accusation that the action he and others are taking in Birmingham is ‘untimely’. King points out that the newly elected mayor of the city, like the previous incumbent, is in favour of racial segregation and thus wishes to preserve the political status quo so far as race is concerned. As King observes, privileged people seldom give up their privileges voluntarily: hence the need for nonviolent pressure.

King now turns to the question of law-breaking. How can he and others justify breaking the law? He quotes St. Augustine, who said that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ A just law uplifts human personality and is consistent with the moral law and God’s law. An unjust law degrades human personality and contradicts the moral law (and God’s law). Because segregation encourages one group of people to view themselves as superior to another group, it is unjust.

He also asserts that he believes the greatest stumbling-block to progress is not the far-right white supremacist but the ‘white moderate’ who are wedded to the idea of ‘order’ in the belief that order is inherently right. King points out both in the Bible (the story of Shadrach and the fiery furnace ) and in America’s own colonial history (the Boston Tea Party ) people have practised a form of ‘civil disobedience’, breaking one set of laws because a higher law was at stake.

King addresses the objection that his actions, whilst nonviolent themselves, may encourage others to commit violence in his name. He rejects this argument, pointing out that this kind of logic (if such it can be called) can be extended to all sorts of scenarios. Do we blame a man who is robbed because his possession of wealth led the robber to steal from him?

The next criticism which King addresses is the notion that he is an extremist. He contrasts his nonviolent approach with that of other African-American movements in the US, namely the black nationalist movements which view the white man as the devil. King points out that he has tried to steer a path between extremists on either side, but he is still labelled an ‘extremist’.

He decides to own the label, and points out that Jesus could be regarded as an ‘extremist’ because, out of step with the worldview of his time, he championed love of one’s enemies.

Other religious figures, as well as American political figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, might be called ‘extremists’ for their unorthodox views (for their time). Jefferson, for example, was considered an extremist for arguing, in the opening words to the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. ‘Extremism’ doesn’t have to mean one is a violent revolutionary: it can simply denote extreme views that one holds.

King expresses his disappointment with the white church for failing to stand with him and other nonviolent activists campaigning for an end to racial segregation. People in the church have made a variety of excuses for not supporting racial integration.

The early Christian church was much more prepared to fight for what it believed to be right, but it has grown weak and complacent. Rather than being disturbers of the peace, many Christians are now upholders of the status quo.

Martin Luther King concludes his letter by arguing that he and his fellow civil rights activists will achieve their freedom, because the goal of America as a nation has always been freedom, going back to the founding of the United States almost two centuries earlier. He provides several examples of the quiet courage shown by those who had engaged in nonviolent protest in the South.

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’: analysis

Martin Luther King’s open letter written from Birmingham Jail is one of the most famous open letters in the world. It is also a well-known defence of the notion of civil disobedience, or refusing to obey laws which are immoral or unjust, often through peaceful protest and collective action.

King answers each of the clergymen’s objections in turn, laying out his argument in calm, rational, but rhetorically brilliant prose. The emphasis throughout is non nonviolent action, or peaceful protest, which King favours rather than violent acts such as rioting (which, he points out, will alienate many Americans who might otherwise support the cause for racial integration).

In this, Martin Luther King was greatly influenced by the example of Mahatma Gandhi , who had led the Indian struggle for independence earlier in the twentieth century, advocating for nonviolent resistance to British rule in India. Another inspiration for King was Henry David Thoreau, whose 1849 essay ‘ Civil Disobedience ’ called for ordinary citizens to refuse to obey laws which they consider unjust.

This question of what is a ‘just’ law and what is an ‘unjust’ law is central to King’s defence of his political approach as laid out in the letter from Birmingham Jail. He points out that everything Hitler did in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s was ‘legal’, because the Nazis changed the laws to suit their ideology and political aims. But this does not mean that what they did was moral : quite the opposite.

Similarly, it would have been ‘illegal’ to come to the aid of a Jew in Nazi Germany, but King states that he would have done so, even though, by helping and comforting a Jewish person, he would have been breaking the law. So instead of the view that ‘law’ and ‘justice’ are synonymous, ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is a powerful argument for obeying a higher moral law rather than manmade laws which suit those in power.

But ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is also notable for the thoughtful and often surprising things King does with his detractors’ arguments. For instance, where we might expect him to object to being called an ‘extremist’, he embraces the label, observing that some of the most pious and peaceful figures in history have been ‘extremists’ of one kind of another. But they have called for extreme love, justice, and tolerance, rather than extreme hate, division, or violence.

Similarly, King identifies white moderates as being more dangerous to progress than white nationalists, because they believe in ‘order’ rather than ‘justice’ and thus they can sound rational and sympathetic even as they stand in the way of racial integration and civil rights. As with the ‘extremist’ label, King’s position here may take us by surprise, but he backs up his argument carefully and provides clear reasons for his stance.

There are two main frames of reference in the letter. One is Christian examples: Jesus, St. Paul, and Amos, the Old Testament prophet , are all mentioned, with King drawing parallels between their actions and those of the civil rights activists participating in direct action.

The other is examples from American history: Abraham Lincoln (who issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War, a century before King was writing) and Thomas Jefferson (who drafted the words to the Declaration of Independence, including the statement that all men are created equal).

Both Christianity and America have personal significance for King, who was a reverend as well as a political campaigner and activist. But these frames of reference also establish a common ground between both him and the clergymen he addresses, and, more widely, with many other Americans who will read the open letter.

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Behind Martin Luther King’s Searing ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

By: Barbara Maranzani

Updated: August 31, 2018 | Original: April 16, 2013

martin luther king,, birmingham

On April 12,  1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and nearly 50 other protestors and civil rights leaders were arrested after leading a Good Friday demonstration as part of the Birmingham Campaign , designed to bring national attention to the brutal, racist treatment suffered by blacks in one of the most segregated cities in America—Birmingham, Alabama. For months, an organized boycott of the city’s white-owned businesses had failed to achieve any substantive results, leaving King and others convinced they had no other options but more direct actions, ignoring a recently passed ordinance that prohibited public gathering without an official permit. 

For King, this arrest—his 13th—would become one of the most important of his career. Thrown into solitary confinement, King was initially denied access to his lawyers or allowed to contact his wife, until President John F. Kennedy was urged to intervene on his behalf. As previously agreed upon, King was not immediately bailed out of jail by his supporters, having instead agreed to a longer stay in jail to draw additional attention to the plight of black Americans.

Shortly after King’s arrest, a friend smuggled in a copy of an April 12 Birmingham newspaper which included an open letter, written by eight local Christian and Jewish religious leaders, which criticized both the demonstrations and King himself, whom they considered an outside agitator. Isolated in his cell, King began working on a response. Without notes or research materials, King drafted an impassioned defense of his use of nonviolent, but direct, actions. 

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Martin Luther King Jr.

Over the course of the letter’s 7,000 words, he turned the criticism back upon both the nation’s religious leaders and more moderate-minded white Americans, castigating them for sitting passively on the sidelines while King and others risked everything agitating for change. King drew inspiration for his words from a long line of religious and political philosophers, quoting everyone from St. Augustine and Socrates to Thomas Jefferson and then-Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren , who had overseen the Supreme Court’s landmark civil rights ruling in Brown v. Board of Education . 

For those, including the Birmingham religious leaders, who urged caution and remained convinced that time would solve the country’s racial issues, King reminded them of Warren’s own words on the need for desegregation, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And for those who thought the Atlanta-based King had no right to interfere with issues in Alabama, King argued, in one of his most famous phrases, that he could not sit “idly by in Atlanta” because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Without writing papers, King initially began by jotting down notes in the margin of the newspaper itself, before writing out portions of the work on scraps of paper he gave his attorneys—allowing a King ally, Wyatt Walker, to begin compiling the letter, which eventually ran to 21 double-spaced, typed pages. Curiously, King never sent a copy to any of the eight Birmingham clergy to whom he had “responded,” leaving many to believe that he had intended it to have a much broader, national, audience all along.

King was finally released from jail on April 20, four days after penning the letter. Despite the harsh treatment he and his fellow protestors had received, King continued his work in Birmingham. Just two weeks later, more than 1,000 schoolchildren took part in the famed “Children’s Crusade,” skipping school to march through the city streets advocating for integration and racial equality. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, who King had repeatedly criticized in his letter for his harsh treatment, ordered fire hoses and police dogs to be turned on the young protestors; more than 600 of them were jailed on the first day alone. The brutal and cruel police tactics on display in Alabama were broadcast on televisions around the world, horrifying many Americans. 

READ MORE: 8 Works of Literature Written from Prison

With Birmingham in chaos and businesses shuttered, local officials were forced to meet with King and agree to some, but not all, of his demands. On June 11, with the horrific events in Birmingham still seared on the American consciousness, and following Governor George Wallace’s refusal to integrate the University of Alabama until the arrival of the U.S. National Guard, President Kennedy addressed the nation, announcing his plans to present sweeping civil rights legislation to the U.S. Congress. Kennedy’s announcement, however, did little to quell the unrest in Birmingham and on September 15, 1963, a Ku Klux Klan bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church left four young African American girls dead.

By this time, King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail had begun to appear in publications across the country. Months earlier, Harvey Shapiro, an editor at The New York Times , had urged King to use his frequent jailing as an opportunity to write a longer defense of his use of nonviolent tactics, and though King did so, The New York Times chose not to publish it. Others did, including The Atlantic Monthly and The Christian Century , one of the most prominent Protestant magazines in the nation. In the weeks leading up to the March on Washington, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference used the letter as part of its fundraising efforts, and King himself used it as a basis for a book, Why We Can’t Wait , which looked back upon the successes and failures of the Birmingham Campaign. The book was released in July 1964, the same month President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law.

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"Letter from Birmingham Jail"

April 16, 1963

As the events of the  Birmingham Campaign  intensified on the city’s streets, Martin Luther King, Jr., composed a letter from his prison cell in Birmingham in response to local religious leaders’ criticisms of the campaign: “Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” (King,  Why , 94–95).

King’s 12 April 1963 arrest for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations took place just over a week after the campaign’s commencement. In an effort to revive the campaign, King and Ralph  Abernathy   had donned work clothes and marched from Sixth Avenue Baptist Church into a waiting police wagon. The day of his arrest, eight Birmingham clergy members wrote a criticism of the campaign that was published in the  Birmingham News , calling its direct action strategy “unwise and untimely” and appealing “to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense” (“White Clergymen Urge”).

Following the initial circulation of King’s letter in Birmingham as a mimeographed copy, it was published in a variety of formats: as a pamphlet distributed by the  American Friends Service Committee  and as an article in periodicals such as  Christian Century ,  Christianity and Crisis , the  New York Post , and  Ebony  magazine. The first half of the letter was introduced into testimony before Congress by Representative William Fitts Ryan (D–NY) and published in the  Congressional Record . One year later, King revised the letter and presented it as a chapter in his 1964 memoir of the Birmingham Campaign,  Why We Can’t Wait , a book modeled after the basic themes set out in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

In  Why We Can’t Wait , King recalled in an author’s note accompanying the letter’s republication how the letter was written. It was begun on pieces of newspaper, continued on bits of paper supplied by a black trustee, and finished on paper pads left by King’s attorneys. After countering the charge that he was an “outside agitator” in the body of the letter, King sought to explain the value of a “nonviolent campaign” and its “four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action” (King,  Why , 79). He went on to explain that the purpose of direct action was to create a crisis situation out of which negotiation could emerge.

The body of King’s letter called into question the clergy’s charge of “impatience” on the part of the African American community and of the “extreme” level of the campaign’s actions (“White Clergymen Urge”). “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” King wrote. “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’” (King,  Why , 83). He articulated the resentment felt “when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King,  Why , 84). King justified the tactic of civil disobedience by stating that, just as the Bible’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s unjust laws and colonists staged the Boston Tea Party, he refused to submit to laws and injunctions that were employed to uphold segregation and deny citizens their rights to peacefully assemble and protest.

King also decried the inaction of white moderates such as the clergymen, charging that human progress “comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation” (King,  Why , 89). He prided himself as being among “extremists” such as Jesus, the prophet Amos, the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln, and observed that the country as a whole and the South in particular stood in need of creative men of extreme action. In closing, he hoped to meet the eight fellow clergymen who authored the first letter.

Garrow,  Bearing the Cross , 1986.

King, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,”  Ebony  (August 1963): 23–32.

King, “From the Birmingham Jail,”  Christianity and Crisis  23 (27 May 1963): 89–91.

King, “From the Birmingham Jail,”  Christian Century  80 (12 June 1963): 767–773.

King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, May 1963).

King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in  Why We Can’t Wait , 1964.

Reverend Martin Luther King Writes from Birmingham City Jail—Part I , 88th Cong., 1st sess.,  Congressional Record  (11 July 1963): A 4366–4368.

“White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations,”  Birmingham News , 13 April 1963.

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main idea letter from birmingham jail

How Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham City Jail’ Inspired the World

“There are two types of laws, just and unjust,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from jail on Easter weekend, 1963. “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” St. Thomas Aquinas would not have disagreed. The image burnished into national memory is the Dr. King of “ I Have a Dream ,” delivered more than 50 years ago in Washington, D.C. So it’s hard to conjure up the 34-year-old in a narrow cell in Birmingham City Jail, hunkered down alone at sunset, using the margins of newspapers and the backs of legal papers to articulate the philosophical foundation of the Civil Rights Movement.

“ Letter From Birmingham City Jail ,” now considered a classic of world literature, was crafted as a response to eight local white clergymen who had denounced Dr. King’s nonviolent protest in the Birmingham News , demanding an end to the demonstrations for desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms and stores. Dr. King’s letter had to be smuggled out of the jail in installments by his attorneys, arriving thought by thought at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s makeshift nerve center at the Gaston Motel. An intensely disciplined Christian, Dr. King was able to mold a modern manifesto of nonviolent resistance out of the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi.

Throughout the 1960s the very word “Birmingham” conjured up haunting images of church bombings and the brutality of Eugene “Bull” Connor’s police, snarling dogs and high-powered fire hoses. When King spent his nine days in the Birmingham jail, it was one of the most rigidly segregated cities in the South, although African Americans made up 40 percent of the population. As Harrison Salisbury wrote in The New York Times , “the streets, the water supply, and the sewer system” were the only public facilities shared by both races. Yet by the time Dr. King was murdered in Memphis five years later, his philosophy had triumphed and Jim Crow laws had been smashed. “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” would eventually be translated into more than 40 languages.

Thanks to Dr. King’s letter, “Birmingham” had become a clarion call for action by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, especially in the 1980s, when the international outcry to free Nelson Mandela reached its zenith. Archbishop Desmond Tutu quoted the letter in his sermons, Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley kept the text with him for good luck, and Ghana’s Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah’s children chanted from it as though Dr. King’s text were a holy writ. During the Cold War, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, Poland’s Solidarity and East Germany’s Pastors’ Movement all had “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” translated and disseminated to the masses via the underground.

Just as Dr. King had been inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” written in a Massachusetts jail to protest the Mexican-American War, a new generation of the globally oppressed embraced the letter as a source of courage and inspiration. Segregation and apartheid were supported by clearly unjust laws—because they distorted the soul and damaged the psyche. Dr. King’s remedy: nonviolent direct action, the only spiritually valid way to bring gross injustice to the surface, where it could be seen and dealt with.

In Jerusalem in 1983, Mubarak Awad, an American-educated clinical psychologist, translated the letter for Palestinians to use in their workshops to teach students about nonviolent struggle. When a Chinese student stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, unflinching in his democratic convictions, he was symbolically acting upon the teachings of Dr. King as elucidated in his fearless Birmingham letter.

Argentinian human rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was inspired in part by King’s letter to create Servicio Paz y Justicia, a Latin American organization that documented the tragedy of the desaparecidos. Today one would be hard-pressed to find an African novelist or poet, including Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, who had not been spurred to denounce authoritarianism by King’s notion that it was morally essential to become a bold protagonist for justice. Even conservative Republican William J. Bennett included “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” in his Book of Virtues .

The universal appeal of Dr. King’s letter lies in the hope it provides the disinherited of the earth, the millions of voiceless poor who populate the planet from the garbage dumps of Calcutta to the AIDS villages of Haiti. His letter describes the “shameful humiliation” and “inexpressible cruelties” of American slavery, and just as Dr. King was forced to reduce his sacred thoughts to the profane words of the newspaper in order to triumph over injustice, African Americans would win their freedom someday because “the sacred heritage of our nations and eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

The National Park Service has designated Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, where Dr. King lived and is buried, a historic district. Banks, businesses and government offices are closed to honor the civil rights martyr every January. But the living tribute to Dr. King, the one that would have delighted him most, is the impact that his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” has had on three generations of international freedom fighters.

These pages of poetry and justice now stand as one of the supreme 20th-century instruction manuals of self-help on how Davids can stand up to Goliaths without spilling blood. As an eternal statement that resonates hope in the valleys of despair, “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” is unrivaled, an American document as distinctive as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation .

This article was written by Douglas Brinkley and originally published in August 2003 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to American History magazine today!

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Letter from Birmingham Jail: Main Idea

We should resist injustice everywhere with non-violent disobedience.

In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King says that we're all responsible for justice across the nation—and around the world. Justice isn't defined or contained by mere laws. After all, laws are basically just words written by human beings. When dumb, unjust laws get written and people suffer as a result, it's necessary to protest those laws by deliberately and non-violently breaking them, even if the resulting unrest and "social tension" is inconvenient for some folks. The time is always now for justice, and there's no good reason to wait for the right thing to be done by someone else. We always have to do it ourselves.

Tl;dr: Get off your butts and march for freedom, people.

  • What's the deal with all this anti-outsider rhetoric? Why did the white clergymen criticize MLK and the other demonstrators for coming from outside the community? Does "outsider" stand for something else?
  • What would Jesus have done in the '60s? Would he have marched with Dr. King? Is racial justice implied by the fundamental teachings of Christianity, as King suggested to the guys who he was writing to?
  • Who's King's real audience for this letter? Is it the white clergymen who protested his protests? Others?
  • Does the fact that King wrote the letter while sitting in jail make it more effective?

Chew On This

Non-violent civil disobedience is the best way to change our world; FYI, everybody, violence doesn't work.

"Letter From Birmingham Jail" wouldn't be remembered today if it hadn't been written from a jail cell. ("Letter From the Comfort of My Atlanta Office" doesn't have quite the same ring to it).

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. (4)

The logic of this quote can be extended to any community, however large or small, including the world community. Dr. King was a proud American, but the underpinning of his major ideas was a spiritual world-vision. The real question is what kind of garment are we tied in? A shirt? A blouse? Pantaloons? He doesn't say.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. (11)

Even though Dr. King is widely considered an idealist, he wasn't a dewy-eyed dreamer. Quotes like this one show how realistic he actually was. If you ask us, seeing MLK's dreams in the full context of an unforgiving world, a history of oppression and slavery, and the centuries-long struggle for justice makes them even more poignant and beautiful [cue inspirational music].

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. (16)

This is like intellectual judo, where Dr. King uses his opponents' appeal to "law and order" against them, by arguing that it is in fact he who has the greatest respect for the law because he wants it to get closer and closer to the ideal and perfect form of justice. MLK was the Kyuzo Mifune of political and theological argument (obscure reference, we know).

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured (20).

Classic Dr. King. He uses a vivid and down-to-earth metaphor as the fulcrum of his argument: racial injustice in the South is like a hidden boil, a gross, festering sore that has to be acknowledged and examined in order to be cured. Blech, get it off.

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity (21).

It's comforting to think of Progress as some great historical machine that keeps improving itself, going faster all the time, making life better and better without any of us having to do anything. It's also comforting to think of pizza and chocolate as the foundation of a healthy diet that will help us live to be two hundred years old. Unfortunately, neither of these things is true, and we have to get off our tushes (in both scenarios).

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W hy's T his F unny?

Letter from Birmingham Jail

By dr. martin luther king, jr..

16 April, 1963

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, 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.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

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. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants—for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

Justice too long delayed is justice denied

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. 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.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

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. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies—a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

The question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of 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? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

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.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Letter From Birmingham Jail Themes

"Letter From Birmingham Jail" Themes

main idea letter from birmingham jail

If you're struggling with a daunting task of writing an essay on the "Letter From Birmingham Jail" theme, you may benefit from the professional help of a paper writing service . This letter, written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, while he was imprisoned for participating in a nonviolent protest in Alabama, has become one of the most significant documents of the American Civil Rights movement.

Despite the passage of over 50 years, the themes discussed in the letter, such as racism, justice, religion, extremism, non-violence, humanity, and individual action, remain highly relevant and impactful today. So, if you find yourself grappling with the same issues as those discussed in the letter, it's essential to seek assistance from skilled and knowledgeable custom essay writers .

When examining the Letter From Birmingham Jail themes, one can observe the enduring importance of issues such as nonviolent resistance, the pursuit of justice, and the role of religion in social justice movements. The letter is a powerful reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and the importance of individual action in the face of systemic injustices. So, order essay online from reliable writing services today and let the professionals help you craft a high-quality essay on this crucial topic.

Unsurprisingly, race is the overarching theme of Letter From Birmingham Jail. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the letter while he was incarcerated at Birmingham Jail for taking part in a nonviolent protest In Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. At the time Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in America. Rather than highlight differences between races, the letter highlights systematic difficulties that the black population was facing and asks people to focus on shared common humanity. The letter speaks about the atrocities faced by black people including violence like lynchings as well as economic issues due to segregationist policies. The letter is not a call for arms, rather it is about the inherent racism that existed within society and why it was time for people to take a stand. 

In the letter, Dr. King speaks in-depth about the idea of Justice making it an important Letter From Birmingham Jail theme. Though he writes the letter from jail, he does not believe that he has done something unjust. The protest may have been illegal but it serves a greater idea of justice. He believes that when laws are inherently unjust, people have the right to stand up against them. Dr. King says that the prevalent laws are unjust for two main reasons. He makes a distinction between man-made laws and divine moral laws. There is no justice if certain laws are immoral. He also makes the argument that laws must apply equally to everyone within a country. A law that discriminates between people is inherently unjust. Dr. King is willing to take the punishments that the law states for his actions even if he believes the law is unjust because his goal is to show the absurdity of the law, not to flout it. 

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Dr. King came from a long line of preachers and was a preacher himself. Christianity was a big part of his philosophy, so it’s no surprise that he makes appeals to religion in the letter. Letter From Birmingham Jail was written in response to an article written by 8 white clergymen titled “A Call for Unity”, which criticized the nonviolent Birmingham Campaign protests. Dr. King states that churches in the south will be judged harshly for upholding ideas that go against the basic Christian idea of kindness. He compares the protests to the actions of early Christians that had to fight for their right to practice their religion. Dr. King appeals to religion because his faith in Christianity motivates his belief that humans are, and should be, kind to each other and treat each other as brothers and sisters. He does not solely on religion to make his point though, but as an important element to enhance his overall message of equality

Extremism is another important Letter From Birmingham Jail theme. Dr. King starts by making a distinction between different types of extremism. On one end are violent protesters and on the other end are African-Americans who have given up hope for change. He does not consider himself or his movement extremist because they follow a path of non-violence and civil disobedience against laws that are inherently unjust. He then gives the example of Jesus Christ, who he calls an extremist for love, and Abraham Lincoln, who was considered an extremist because of his stance against slavery. Eventually, he redefines and reclaims the word extremist and believes that moderates who choose to follow the status quo and sit by while injustice happens are more dangerous than the extremism he believes in.  

Nonviolence

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was heavily influenced by nonviolent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi so it is no surprise that it is an important Letter From Birmingham Jail theme. In the letter, he speaks about the importance of the ”creative tension” that nonviolent protest and civil disobedience creates. He makes the point that the dissatisfaction endemic in the African American population needs to have an outlet, and if it is not by non-violent means then it will happen through violence. One of the criticisms levied against him in A Call for Unity was why he did not negotiate rather than stage a protest. He says in the letter that marginalized communities with no power are unable to negotiate equally unless there is some form of tension. Nonviolence fits into his idea of justice. The goal was not to hurt anyone or to escape punishment, rather the goal of the protest was to willingly sacrifice to create positive tension. 

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In the letter, Dr. King explains and shows that people should treat each other with respect. There is no distinction between different races or religions, and geographic distinctions like North and South don’t matter. Everyone is a part of humanity. He appeals not just to emotions but makes philosophical arguments and logical arguments for why segregation is inherently unjust. He says that ”Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”. He believes that all human beings are connected, and especially those that live in the same society need to live equally and share their humanity. 

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One of the most important Letter From Birmingham Jail themes is the need for immediate and individual action. Many people, especially white moderates and complacent African-Americans, believed that with time equality would spread to all communities in America. Dr. King states that time by itself does not change anything, it is people who make changes in society. He believes that people who do nothing and just wait are as dangerous as openly racist people because those people live to protect order and their own comfortable lives rather than protect important ideas like equality and justice. He makes comparisons to recent history and looking at the example of countries in Asia and Africa who were gaining independence from their colonial Masters says that waiting does not work. Action is required if a change needs to happen and that is why everyone must do their part.

There are a few answers to the question: what is the theme of Letter From Birmingham Jail? Of course, overall the letter is about racism, but one of the most important themes is the call to individual action. Letter From Birmingham Jail is a brilliant, moving, and convincing piece of writing because it uses deep themes like religion and the concept of justice and humanity to build a case for the overarching ideas about the injustice of racism and the requirement of action. If you need any more help with understanding the themes in a Letter From Birmingham Jail, or with an essay in general, the experts at Studyfy have the experience to help you in any way you need. If you are a young person looking for someone to help you with your admission essay, don't hesitate to get help from experts on university admission essay writing service and double your chance to enter any institution.

Letter From Birmingham Jail

By martin luther king, jr., letter from birmingham jail themes.

It seems obvious to say that “Letter from Birmingham Jail” concerns itself with race, but its treatment of segregation is indeed multi-faceted and fascinating. While Dr. King stipulates as fact that all races are equal, he only occasionally draws attention to the separation between races. Instead, what he preaches is connection between all humans, regardless of race. He often avoids mentioning the particular plight of the “Negro,” instead framing his arguments around a push for universal justice. Nevertheless, the difference between races underlines the entire piece, and it would be folly to forget that. The work is written not to inspire a black audience, but to convince and chide a white audience. And at its core, it is a declaration of the power of the black man, whom Dr. King writes endured and survived slavery, and who will one day be recognized as the true heroes of the age.

Justice/Injustice

Though the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is implicitly concerned with justice throughout, Dr. King also addresses the question directly at several points. In effect, he posits that justice upholds the dignity of the human spirit, while injustice works against it. By discussing this concept in general, philosophical terms, he establishes criteria by which to equivocally attack both segregation and silence in the face of it. In terms of this latter attack, he ultimately suggests that the man who sees injustice and does nothing to stop it is acting unjustly as well. Following this idea, he argues that laws must be imbued with a moral sense in order to be just; in other words, law and morality cannot be seen as separate pursuits or areas. It is significant that Dr. King frames his argument in terms of these universal values – rather than the simple political question of the day – since it makes the argument both more timeless and more unimpeachable.

Extremism/Moderation

The context of the “Letter” is the protests that the SCLC was holding in Birmingham, which prompted the clergymen to pontificate on the dangers of extremism. Dr. King expands this context to suggest that the general consensus – that moderation is preferable to extremism – is false. Moderation, he argues, allows injustice to flourish while otherwise good people can comfort themselves with the belief that patience will solve society’s ills. The only way to truly enact change and help mankind transcend its limitations is to not only act with but also embrace extremism. Though he takes great pains to frame his movement as “creative” (rather than destructive) extremism, Dr. King firmly contends that one must be willing to actively pursue change lest he otherwise be accused of cowardice in the face of injustice (180). Despite its measured restraint, the “Letter” is an argument for taking action, and against hiding behind platitudes of moderation.

Organized Religion

Dr. King does not limit his argument to abstract virtues of morality, but in fact addresses directly the responsibilities of organized religion, especially in the case of the Christian church. As a Christian minister himself, Dr. King is overall respectful of and optimistic about the potential of the church. And yet he directly chides the clergymen for allowing their organizations to compromise the true mission of the Christian spirit. Contrasting them with the early Christians – who risked persecution and death in order to remake the world and engender justice – he argues that the contemporary church (especially in the South) risks becoming irrelevant as it seeks to protect the status quo rather than challenge people to transcend their weaknesses. His argument grows quite pessimistic, and he warns that the church will one day be judged quite harshly if it does not act for justice. Considering his earlier attack on groups – which he insists are less moral than individuals – the implicit argument seems to be that the church has chosen to support a group mentality of injustice rather than forcing individuals to confront their failures and change.

Civil Disobedience

For many, Dr. King’s discussion and defense of civil disobedience is one of the letter’s most enduring attributes. Ultimately, he presents a model of civil disobedience closely aligned to both Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s. First in his philosophy is the idea that the individual has not only a right but also a responsibility to challenge unjust laws. Using his definition of an unjust law (one that degrades human dignity), Dr. King explains how the SCLC has responsibly acted to exhibit the shortcomings of segregation. And yet he gives equal attention to the “civil” part of the equation, insisting both that one ought to break unjust laws both non-violently and “lovingly” (176). He must be willing to serve his penalty for his transgression, and thereby show love and respect for the law overall. In the end, Dr. King’s treatise on civil disobedience conforms to his ultimate hope: that individual action can inspire and change people in pursuit of a world free of hatred.

Universal humanity

The restraint that Dr. King shows throughout the “Letter” – using as many appeals to logos as he does to pathos; refraining from drawing distinctions between races; justifying his extremism in philosophical terms – is not only an effective tool for convincing his audience. It is also a reflection of his optimistic belief that all men are connected. Early on, he states this explicitly, arguing, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (170). His variety of tactics and allusions only validates his belief that all men are connected to one another, and by extension, are responsible for one another. In decrying the pernicious influence that groups have on individuals, he suggests that harmony might come if we accept our place not in limited groups – southerners vs. northerners, black vs. white – but instead in the community of universal humanity and “brotherhood” (185).

Individual action

One could arguably break Dr. King’s argument down to a call for individual action. At one point in the “Letter,” he argues that “time itself is neutral” (178). It in itself changes nothing, but instead relies on individuals to take action in order to define the world. The entire work is suffused with an understanding of history that requires men and women both great and small to make their marks, since time itself solves nothing. His discussion of history repeats this concept – he is able to see the pernicious history of slavery as evidence of the black man’s inner resolve, showing that he can interpret the past however he wants. Likewise, he looks towards a future that will consider the black man the true hero of the 1960’s, because they have taken action for justice. The flipside of this celebratory tone is the warning to those who only show ‘patience’ and moderation, since they will be forgotten. Only those strong enough to force change will truly matter in the long run.

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Letter From Birmingham Jail Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Letter From Birmingham Jail is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

How do allusions that King uses in his letter help the audience relate to him and what he is saying?

King uses allusions to align his arguments with famous thinkers of Western civilization.

John Donne : "New Day in Birmingham" allusion to "No Man is an Island" .

John Bunyan : Puritan writer, imprisoned; "I will stay in jail before I make a butchery...

The timing of the protest continued to change because

D. They did not want to interfere with the mayoral election.

What are the social and legal consequences for civil disobedience?

For many, Dr. King’s discussion and defense of civil disobedience is one of the letter’s most enduring attributes. Ultimately, he presents a model of civil disobedience closely aligned to both Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s. First in his philosophy is the...

Study Guide for Letter From Birmingham Jail

Letter From Birmingham Jail study guide contains a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About Letter From Birmingham Jail
  • Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary
  • Character List

Essays for Letter From Birmingham Jail

Letter From Birmingham Jail essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Rhetorical Analysis of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
  • How Stoicism Supports Civil Disobedience
  • We Are in This Together: Comparing "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and "Sonny's Blues"
  • Fighting Inequality with the Past: A Look into "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and Related Historical Documents
  • A Question of Appeal: Rhetorical Analysis of Malcolm X and MLK

Lesson Plan for Letter From Birmingham Jail

  • About the Author
  • Study Objectives
  • Common Core Standards
  • Introduction to Letter From Birmingham Jail
  • Relationship to Other Books
  • Bringing in Technology
  • Notes to the Teacher
  • Related Links
  • Letter From Birmingham Jail Bibliography

Wikipedia Entries for Letter From Birmingham Jail

  • Introduction
  • Summary and themes
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Letter from Birmingham Jail

main idea letter from birmingham jail

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Martin luther king, jr., everything you need for every book you read..

Racism  Theme Icon

Systemic racism throughout the American South is at the heart of Martin Luther King, Jr .’s letter, written in response to criticism of his nonviolent civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama. King writes his letter from jail, as he and other African Americans have been arrested for protesting the segregation policies and overt racism in Birmingham; those protests violated an injunction on parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing. He gives ample context for the protests…

Racism  Theme Icon

Christianity and Morality

In his letter, Martin Luther King, Jr . responds to criticism from eight Alabama clergymen ; directing himself to them as a fellow Christian, he defends the Birmingham protests and his desegregationalist agenda by appealing to their Christian values and sense of morality. Of all of King’s rhetorical strategies, this may be the strongest and most personal for him, as King sees racial equality not just as a political issue, but a moral and religious…

Christianity and Morality Theme Icon

Extremism vs. Moderation

Many critics portrayed civil rights activists as extremists, a term that King addresses directly in his letter. While he first rejects the idea that he is an extremist, he later embraces the term, again citing parallels from the Bible of “extremist” actions that served a higher moral cause. He also uses this opportunity to condemn moderates whose silence and apathy he finds more detrimental to the cause of racial justice than the direct opposition of…

Extremism vs. Moderation Theme Icon

Martin Luther King, Jr . writes his letter from a small jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, imprisoned for protesting racial inequality and segregation as a political and social policy in the South. Despite writing from a prison cell, however, King never considers his actions criminal, and uses his letter to argue that while the protests were illegal, they served a greater sense of justice. He was protesting laws that he considered fundamentally unjust for a…

Justice  Theme Icon

Home — Essay Samples — Social Issues — Letter From Birmingham Jail — Letter from Birmingham Jail – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Published: Feb 12, 2024

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Works Cited:

  • King Jr., Martin Luther. "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Stanford University, 16 Apr. 1963

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An Annotated Guide to Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

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On April 12, 1963—Good Friday—a 428-word open letter appeared in the Birmingham, Alabama, newspaper calling for unity and protesting the recent Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham.

We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “ an appeal for law and order and common sense ,” in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.

main idea letter from birmingham jail

Since that time there had been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems .

However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.

We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.

Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.

We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.

We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense .

There were eight signees: Two Episcopalians and two Methodists, along with a Roman Catholic, a Jew, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist. Three of them were in their forties; three in their fifties; one in his sixties; and one who was seventy. All were white.

  • Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D., Episcopalian Bishop of Alabama
  • Bishop Joseph A. Durick, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham
  • Rabbi Milton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama
  • Bishop Paul Hardin, Methodist Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference
  • Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church
  • Rev. George M. Murray, D.D., LL.D, Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
  • Rev. Edward V. Ramage, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States
  • Rev. Earl Stallings, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

These eight clergy members who signed the letter were not segregationists but moderates who preferred for the issue to be handled at the local level, rather than by outsiders (like Martin Luther King Jr.).

They urged the use of negotiations and the legal system rather than public protests. They call for peace, not violence. They advocated the rule of law and common sense. And they questioned both the wisdom and the timing of these actions. (For example, King and the other protesters had marched the day after Bull Connor lost a run-off election for mayor, and many wondered why they seemed to be inciting a conflict rather than waiting to seeing the policies of the new administration.)

King had been arrested the same day the letter appeared (April 12, 1963), after violating Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins’s injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing. Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth were among the marchers also arrested.

When King read the letter from a small prison cell at the Birmingham Jail, he began composing notes of a response in the margins of the newspaper. His reply was eventually composed and stitched together to form what is now known as the 6,921-word “ Letter from Birmingham Jail ,” dated April 16, 1963.

As explored by S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letters from Birmingham Jail”   ( LSU Press, 2001), some of these clergy labored for racial justice and were stung by King’s public criticism, never able to live it down as they were immortalized as literally a “textbook example” of those on the wrong side of history. (It should be noted that Billy Graham shared their views at the time.)

I have reprinted King’s famous letter in its entirety below, along with some headings that can serve as an outline as you read along. It’s an important and relevant work that speaks powerfully to the need for justice, love, and action, under a natural-law theory that recognizes the divine basis of moral law.

(For a more comprehensive approach than what I’ve provided below, including an outline and historical background in footnotes, see Peter Lillback’s very helpful  Annotations on a Letter That Changed the World from a Birmingham Jail .)

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

[King’s circumstances, and the white clergy’s charges that led to this response] 

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”

[Why King does not usually answer criticism]

Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.

[Why King is making an exception here, and how he hopes to answer it]

But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

[Why King is in Birmingham (he lives in Memphis, 250 miles away)]

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”

[Organizational reason]

I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates.

Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise.

So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

[Religious reason]

But more basically, 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.

[Communal reason]

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

[The protests are unfortunate, but the causes even more so]

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. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

[A review of the process of the non-violent protest and the history behind it]

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.

[1. Collection of facts to determine if injustice exists]

There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case.

[2. Negotiation]

On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us.

[3. Self-purification]

We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

[4. Direct action]

We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

[Answer to the charge that they should have negotiated instead of engaging in direct action]

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

[In defense of creating “tension”]

My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

[Answer to the charge that they didn’t give the new city administration time to act]

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?”

The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act.

We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. 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.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;

when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;

when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;

when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;

when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;

when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;

when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;

when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;

when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments;

when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”

—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

[Answer to the charge that they are willing to break the law]

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools , at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.

[Two types of law: just and unjust]

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”

The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

[The difference between just and unjust laws]

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?

A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.

An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

Any law that uplifts human personality is just.

Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

[Example #1]

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

[Example #2]

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws.

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.

By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

[Example #3]

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

[Example #4]

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

[Disobeying an unjust law and bearing the consequences expresses the highest respect for law]

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

[Predecessors to this type of civil disobedience]

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience.

It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar , on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.

It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

[Two honest confessions]

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers.

[1. Disappointment with the white moderate]

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

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.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

[Answer to the charge that their actions, though peaceful, precipitate violence]

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.

But is this a logical assertion?

Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?

Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?

Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?

We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

[Answer to the myth that time will inevitably cure all social ills]

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom.

I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

[Answer to the charge that their activity is extreme]

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme.

At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community.

[1. Force of complacency in the Negro community]

One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.

[2. Force of bitterness and hatred in the Negro community]

The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

[3. An alternative, or a more excellent way]

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.

And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides—and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

[Were not these men extremists, too?]

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”

And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of 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 . . .”

[The question is: what kind of extremist will one be?]

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?

In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

[Gratitude for those white brothers in the South who have helped]

I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some—such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

[2. Disappointment with the white church and its leadership]

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions.

I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue.

I commend you, Reverend Stallings [one of the signers of “A Call to Unity”], for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis.

main idea letter from birmingham jail

I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies.

Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

[Coming to Birmingham with hope, only to be disappointed]

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.”

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.

In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

[Tears of love over the body of Christ]

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

[Remembering a time when the church was powerful]

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.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.

[Gratitude for those in the church who have helped]

But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

[No despair for the future]

But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.

Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here.

Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here.

For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

[Concern about the clergy commending the actions of the Birmingham police]

Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.”

I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes.

I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail;

if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls;

if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys;

if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.

I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation.

Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

[Where is the commendation for the peaceful protester?]

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.

One day the South will recognize its real heroes.

They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.

They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama [Mother Pollard], who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.”

They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake.

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

[Reflections on this letter and how it will be received]

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me.

If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

[Hopes for the future]

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Justin Taylor is executive vice president for book publishing and publisher for books at Crossway. He blogs at Between Two Worlds and Evangelical History . You can follow him on Twitter .

A Harmony of the Birth of Jesus: Matthew and Luke

people traveling in a dessert

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82 Letter From Birmingham Jail Essay Prompts, Topics, & Examples

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🏆 Best Letter from Birmingham Jail Essay Prompts & Examples

📌 most interesting letter from birmingham jail essay prompts & topics, 👍 good research topics about letter from birmingham jail, ❓ letter from birmingham jail essay questions.

  • Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” This letter from Birmingham Jail analysis essay shall highlight some of the issues discussed in the historic letter including King’s reason for being in Birmingham and why he felt compelled to break the law.
  • Separate but Equal: “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. In particular, it is necessary to analyze this work in terms of ethos, pathos, and logos and the way in which King balances these three appeals in order to convince the readers.
  • “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Rhetorical Analysis Essay He supports his argument in the next paragraph, where he puts it across that they have been governed by a combination of unjust and just law whereby there is a need to separate the two.
  • Changing the Unjust Laws: “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Therefore, the main aim of the letter was to push for the changing of the unjust laws as well as upholding the Supreme Court ruling of the year 1954.
  • Analysis of the Kings Letter From Birmingham Jail From the biblical stand, the king was justified to move in the hope that his contributions would bring change in the destined world.
  • Critical Analysis of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” The author accuses these leaders of supporting the status quo by refusing to support the cause of the Americans in their attempt to have these laws changed or repealed.
  • King’s ‘The letter From Birmingham Jail’ He claims that since the clergy is not willing to listen to them and give them their rights, they have to show the importance of the matter by holding non-violent demonstrations.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail He raises the stakes in his letter by pointing out “…the intent of our peaceful, active action is to generate a crisis-filled situation that will certainly necessitate commencement of negotiations”. King’s letter reveal a man […]
  • Justice in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by King The main topic of the letter is the discussion of the issue of justice and injustice.Dr. In the discussion of just and unjust laws, Dr.
  • Extremism in King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Initially, he dismissed the idea that he was an extremist; however, later, he redefined that label.Dr. He further noted that true extremists were the participants of the different black nationalist groups.
  • King’s Allusion in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Through allusion to Apostle Paul, King attempted to stress that he also wanted to spread freedom. In the same manner, King believed that people could unite to combat oppression.
  • “A Letter From Birmingham Jail” and “I Have A Dream” by M. L. King Jr. He is of the view that almost all the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham are futile in the case of the black Americans and it is the most segregated city in the United States.
  • King ‘s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” Despite this fact, both King and Thoreau had a common goal to expose the unjust laws that govern a society of civil resistance to unjust laws It should be stressed that both King and Thoreau […]
  • “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by M. L. King, Jr. In conclusion, King’s letter is an example of a work that has all the elements to be convincing and meaningful to society and its history.
  • Rhetorical Techniques in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King His flawless use of metaphors and parallelism allows the reader or the audience to empathize with King and support him in his fight against racial injustice.
  • King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail on Justice In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, a fighter for the rights of African Americans, repeats the idea of freedom and equality for US citizens.
  • The Letter From Birmingham Jail and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Address Owing to the historic social implications these works had in America, reflecting on the connectors, disparities, and the most outstanding aspects of Lincoln’s and King’s works is imperative to understanding their unique quests for social […]
  • The Political Undertones in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • An Analysis of Unjust and Just Laws in America in the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Argumentative Synthesis “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • A Comparison of Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience
  • Appeal to Emotions in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Counter-Argument to the Public Statement of Alabama Clergymen in Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • An Interpretation of Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • An Argument Towards Several Clergy Men in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King
  • The Strong Moral Values as Portrayed in King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • An Analysis of Whether It Is Moral or Not to Disobey Laws in the Articles of “Crito” by Plato and “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Use of Literary Elements in Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • Logical Fallacies in “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • Unveiling the Battle Against Racism in “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • Exploration of Civil Disobedience in Sophocles’ “Antigone,” King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and Plato’s “Crito”
  • “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Leadership Style
  • Prejudice and Discrimination Depicted in “The Myth of the Latin Woman” and “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • A Rhetorical Analysis of Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • The Need of Equality and Peace for the African American Community in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Ideas of Wholeness and Brokenness in Victor Frankl’s “Man’ Search for Meaning” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • Evaluation of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Resistance to Civil Government
  • Right or Wrong to Break the Law and “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • The Role of Education and Critical Literacy and “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • Freedom From Oppression in “Night” by Elie Wiesel, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Martin Luther King as Activist and Outsider and His “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • Moral and Political History of “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • The Ethos of Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”: Wisdom, Argument, and Morality
  • Value of Community for Human and “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • The Use of Figurative Language in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • Using the Rhetorical Triangle “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Dr. Martin Luther King
  • The Resemblance of the Rogerian Argument in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Relevance of “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • The Sin of Morality in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”
  • Social Justice and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • White Privilege and “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Efficient Use of Ethos, Logos, and Pathos in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • An Argument in Favor of the Abortion Protest as Justified and the Speeding Case Unjustified in “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
  • The Purpose of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Power of Persuasion to Change Situation in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • How Martin Luther King Pushes for a Fight Against the Injustices Caused by Racial Inequality in “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Is the Primary Purpose of the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Quizlet?
  • What Did Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Argue?
  • What Is the Connection Between “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Resistance to Civil Government?
  • What Are the Three Main Ideas of “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • Who Is Martin Luther King Jr Addressing in His “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Is the Main Conclusion of “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Was King’s Primary Purpose for Writing This Letter in “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • How Do “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and “More Perfect Union” Alike and Also Different?
  • What Are Just and Unjust Laws According to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In His “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • How Does the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Deal With the Subject of Race?
  • How Is Justifies the Abortion Protests Based on Justified Civil Disobedience Concept in the “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • Why Is “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Important?
  • How in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Describe Against Discrimination and Segregation?
  • What Is the Connection Between “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Civil Disobedience?
  • What Are Martin Luther King’s Reasons for Protest Explained in His “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Is the Thesis of “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • How Martin Luther King’s Use of Historical and Religious Figures in His “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • How Did Martin Luther Kings Use Pathos and Logos in His “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Is the Connection Between Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Contemporary America, and U.S. Foreign Policy?
  • How Prejudice and Discrimination Depicted in “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Used Rhetorical Strategies for Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • How Is Influenced on the Society the Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Was the Main Point of the “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Are the Strong Moral Values Portrayed in King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • What Are the Tone and Writing Techniques of “Letter From Birmingham Jail”?
  • How Describes White Privilege in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.?
  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

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  1. Main Idea Of Letter From Birmingham Jail

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  2. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" OUTLINE

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  3. Letter From Birmingham Jail Analysis

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  4. "Letter From a Birmingham Jail"

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  5. Martin Luther King, Jr. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" Summary and Plot

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COMMENTS

  1. Letter from Birmingham Jail Main Ideas

    Share The Time for Change Is Now Many of Martin Luther King Jr.'s detractors, including the eight white Alabama clergymen who criticized him in the Birmingham News, said this isn't the right time for protests and demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise.

  2. A Summary and Analysis of Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham

    'Letter from Birmingham Jail' is Martin Luther King's most famous written text, and rivals his most celebrated speech, ' I Have a Dream ', for its political importance and rhetorical power. King wrote this open letter in April 1963 while he was imprisoned in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama.

  3. Letter from Birmingham Jail Summary & Analysis

    Themes Themes and Colors Key Summary Analysis Martin Luther King, Jr. directs his letter to the eight white clergymen who publicly condemned his actions in Birmingham, Alabama.

  4. Letter from Birmingham Jail: Study Guide

    Overview Written from a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell in 1963 in response to criticisms from eight white Alabama clergymen, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" is a key document of the Civil Rights Movement and an important contribution to American history.

  5. Behind Martin Luther King's Searing 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'

    King was finally released from jail on April 20, four days after penning the letter. Despite the harsh treatment he and his fellow protestors had received, King continued his work in Birmingham ...

  6. Letter from Birmingham Jail

    Summary and themes King's letter, dated April 16, 1963, [12] responded to several criticisms made by the "A Call for Unity" clergymen, who agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not the streets.

  7. Letter from Birmingham Jail: Full Book Summary

    The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. writes "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in April 1963 in response to being imprisoned for his efforts to desegregate Birmingham, an important, industrial Alabama city known for its repressive and regressive policies during the 1960s.

  8. "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

    April 16, 1963 As the events of the Birmingham Campaign intensified on the city's streets, Martin Luther King, Jr., composed a letter from his prison cell in Birmingham in response to local religious leaders' criticisms of the campaign: "Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time.

  9. Letter from Birmingham Jail Study Guide

    A Letter in Pieces. While in the Birmingham City jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. had little access to the outside world, and was only able to read "A Call to Unity" when a trusted friend smuggled the newspaper into his jail cell. King wrote his response in the margins of the paper, in pieces, and they were smuggled back out to a fellow pastor ...

  10. Letter from a Birmingham Jail (article)

    16 April 1963 My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas.

  11. How Martin Luther King's 'Letter From Birmingham City Jail' Inspired

    "Letter From Birmingham City Jail" would eventually be translated into more than 40 languages. Thanks to Dr. King's letter, "Birmingham" had become a clarion call for action by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, especially in the 1980s, when the international outcry to free Nelson Mandela reached its zenith.

  12. Letter from Birmingham Jail Summary

    Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in response to criticism of the nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1963. In the letter, King responds specifically to a statement published in a local newspaper by eight white clergymen, calling the protests "unwise and untimely" and condemning to the "outsiders" who were leading them.

  13. Letter from Birmingham City Jail Themes

    The main themes in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" include justice, civil disobedience, and Christianity. Justice: King argues that denying justice to one person threatens justice for...

  14. Letter from Birmingham Jail: Themes

    In "Letter from Birmingham Jail", Martin Luther King joins the countless philosophers who have tried to provide a definition for the concept of justice. At first glance, the answer might seem simple. However, as these countless philosophers discovered, it is actually very hard to be precise about justice, even though most people have a ...

  15. Letter from Birmingham Jail: Main Idea

    In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King says that we're all responsible for justice across the nation—and around the world. Justice isn't defined or contained by mere laws. After all, laws are basically just words written by human beings. When dumb, unjust laws get written and people suffer as a result, it's necessary to protest those laws ...

  16. Letter from Birmingham Jail, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

    by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From the Birmingham jail, where he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in longhand the letter which follows. It was his response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South.

  17. "Letter From Birmingham Jail" Themes

    Unsurprisingly, race is the overarching theme of Letter From Birmingham Jail. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the letter while he was incarcerated at Birmingham Jail for taking part in a nonviolent protest In Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. At the time Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in America.

  18. Letter from Birmingham Jail Paragraphs 1-22 Summary & Analysis

    A summary of Paragraphs 1-22 in Martin Luther King, Jr's Letter from Birmingham Jail. Learn exactly what happened in this chapter, scene, or section of Letter from Birmingham Jail and what it means. Perfect for acing essays, tests, and quizzes, as well as for writing lesson plans.

  19. Letter From Birmingham Jail Themes

    Justice/Injustice. Though the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is implicitly concerned with justice throughout, Dr. King also addresses the question directly at several points. In effect, he posits that justice upholds the dignity of the human spirit, while injustice works against it. By discussing this concept in general, philosophical terms ...

  20. Letter from Birmingham Jail (pdf)

    1 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Background In 1963 a group of clergymen published an open letter to Martin Luther King Jr., calling nonviolent demonstrations against segregation "unwise and untimely." From the Birmingham jail where he was imprisoned for his participation in demonstrations, King wrote the following letter in reply.

  21. Letter from Birmingham Jail Themes

    Justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes his letter from a small jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, imprisoned for protesting racial inequality and segregation as a political and social policy in the South. Despite writing from a prison cell, however, King never considers his actions criminal, and uses his letter to argue that while the protests ...

  22. Letter from Birmingham Jail

    In response to this letter, Dr. King wrote a powerful and influential piece entitled "Letter from Birmingham Jail." This letter marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and reassured African-Americans that their fight for equal rights under the law was worth pursuing, even if it meant enduring hardships along the way. Dr. King emphasized the urgency of the situation and the need for ...

  23. An Annotated Guide to Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail

    Replica of Dr. King's Birmingham jail cell at the National Civil Rights Museum. On April 12, 1963—Good Friday—a 428-word open letter appeared in the Birmingham, Alabama, newspaper calling for unity and protesting the recent Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham. We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued " an ...

  24. 82 Letter From Birmingham Jail Essay Prompts, Topics, & Examples

    Updated: Dec 8th, 2023 7 min Whether you're writing an essay, thesis statement, or topic sentence for Letter from Birmingham Jail, you'll need an excellent topic. With the original ideas prepared by our experts, you will surely find the best one for your paper. We will write a custom essay specifically for you by our professional experts

  25. Rhetorical Devices and Figurative Language in "Letter from a Birmingham

    The use of contrary ideas expressed in a balanced sentence. It is the juxtaposition of two words, phrases, clauses, or sentences contrasted or opposed in meaning in such a way as to give emphasis to their contrasting ideas and give the effect of balance. ... MLK Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" Rhetorical Tropes and Schemes. 36 terms ...