DR Martin Luther King
Letter from Birmingham Jail: Analysis 2
On April 12, 1963 King was arrested for breaking an Alabama injunction against demonstrations in
Birmingham. He was placed in solitary confinement and on April 16th he read a letter from Alabama clergymen
published in the New York Times in which they criticized King and the Birmingham Movement for inciting civil
disturbances. King wrote his response along the margin of the paper. The following version has been edited.
Directions: Be an active reader by underlining key phrases and writing comments or questions
in the margin. Answer the questions in italics on a separate sheet of paper.
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. 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.
What are Kings reasons for being in Birmingham?
How does King answer to the charge of being an outsider?
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 line in bold print is considered one of the King’s most famous quotes. What does this mean for individual’s
who have ignored the issues of Birmingham? What does this mean today for each of us living in United States?
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.
What are the four basic steps of nonviolent direct action? For each of the steps state the example in Birmingham.
Can you think of another historical (local, national, global) example of nonviolent protest which followed these
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.
Why did King and others decide to delay their actions?
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
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.
What does King mean by “constructive nonviolent tension” and how does he define its goal?
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."
The above paragraph in bold is another of King’s most well known statements. Choose an example from United
States history which represents the “painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.”
Choose an example which illustrates his point 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.
List the injustices and choose three to compare to the Bill of Rights and/or the UDHR
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.
King describes two types of law, just and unjust, how does he define each? Can you give other examples in the
present of unjust laws you feel a moral obligation to disobey? Would you be willing to accept the consequences?
What are the effects of segregation?
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.
Do you need to obey a law that you did not participate in creating? Most of you are under 18, do you need to live
by a law you did not participate in making? Residents in a country, should they obey laws they did not participate
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.
Breaking an unjust law lovingly? Could you get to this state? Why does he think this would be an expression of
respect for the law? What if his actions do not arouse the conscience of the community? Was it worth it?
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.
What does King warn will happen if the Negro Community is not allowed to demonstrate through nonviolent
actions? Is King threatening them?
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