Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)
Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
and Nonviolent Social Transformation
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) by Martin Luther King, Jr., has become a classic description and defense of civil disobedience, and a hallmark of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Rooted in resistance to racism, and embracing the dignity of the individual, King’s words anticipate the modern human rights revolution with their emphasis on the mutuality of human beings, and the interdependence of their rights. This essay looks at the letter’s historical context—King’s imprisonment for protesting without a permit, his leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the movement’s need for a manifesto—and its religious and philosophical influences, from African American church sermons to Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy and activism. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has become a rallying cry against oppression, and for justice worldwide.—J.W.R.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
This essay focuses on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (dated April 16, 1963), and how its content and context represent a significant milestone in the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and in nonviolent social movements globally; it is a universal manifesto for freedom and equality. The letter was first published in book form in Why We Can’t Wait (1964), a collection of King’s writings about Birmingham, Alabama, and is widely available online.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), often along with his lieutenant Ralph D. Abernathy, Sr. (1926–1990), and thousands of other activists, was thrown in jail repeatedly for protesting U.S. segregation laws and practices over the course of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and ’60s. On Good Friday 1963, King and Abernathy were among some fifty people arrested in Birmingham for “parading without a permit,” leading a protest in violation of a court-issued injunction banning the march. Such acts of civil disobedience against what King described as unjust laws were hallmarks of the Civil Rights Movement to end racial segregation.
During his eight days of imprisonment in the Birmingham jail in 1963 (he would serve time again there in 1968), King read an open letter, published in a five-day-old copy of the Birmingham News, critical of “a series of demonstrations by some of our negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders.” The letter was written and signed by eight white local clergymen urging an end to demonstrations that they believed could lead to further hatred and violence; instead, they supported what they referred to as restraint, and use of the courts and negotiations with the Birmingham civil authorities. King’s written response—explaining why Negroes could not wait, and that “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”—began in scribbles on the edges of the newspaper. Over the rest of what he described as his “confinement” in prison, he continued to write down his ideas; many were based on earlier sermons and speeches. Sections of the letter were smuggled out by his lawyers, further edited, and typed in the following days. Initially, there was limited publicity of the letter, or reaction to it; however, it was later picked up by several national papers and periodicals. The letter was eventually reprinted and circulated widely, providing a moral and intellectual basis for the nonviolent movement and its campaigns, and helped to gain financial and popular support as well. Just as “We Shall Overcome” became its protest song, the letter by Martin Luther King, Jr., penned in the Birmingham jail, became the written rally cry for the Civil Rights Movement, and the most widely read manifesto of its goals. King’s stirring language and content has made “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” a classic in the literature of social protest worldwide. “If Birmingham could be cracked, the direction of the entire nonviolent movement in the South could turn. It was our faith that ‘as Birmingham goes, so goes the South’” (King, “How It Began” 4).
Birmingham, Alabama, was founded in 1871, six years after the Civil War ended, and it was referred to as “The Magic City” early on because of its rapid economic growth as a Southern industrial center for iron, steel, and manufacturing. At the same time, Birmingham adopted the practices and policies of segregation that characterized the antebellum South, becoming a center of Jim Crow support where the white population strongly supported racial segregation. “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs dotted the city’s public and private facilities, and segregation was strongly enforced. The city acquired a reputation as a segregationist stronghold and a bastion of the Ku Klux Klan. Birmingham was nicknamed “Bombingham”; one neighborhood was known locally as “Dynamite Hill,” reflecting the extent of violence against African American persons and their property: by one estimate, over fifty homes were bombed in the city between 1947 and 1965.
Birmingham was one of a number of places that resisted the changes mandated by a series of court cases dismantling the legitimacy of racial segregation in schools, public transportation and facilities, voting, and other areas. The May 17, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court judgment Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was a watershed event, overturning the earlier “separate but equal” rulings, and declaring segregated educational facilities unconstitutional. However, it turned out that the ruling to end segregation in schools “with all deliberate speed” proved very slow in action, and the implementation of integration in schools, public facilities, and other places met a series of legal and other obstacles; the law was often ignored and fought against by segregationists and their supporters. In Birmingham in the early 1960s, discrimination against African Americans—who made up 40 percent of the population—continued with segregation in public and private institutions and spheres, employment access limited to low-paying jobs without benefits, and obstruction of voter registration. The Ku Klux Klan had close ties with city officials, including the commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor. In general, targeted racial violence against African Americans and their property was carried out with impunity. Periodic physical violence took place, including killing and maiming. For example, there was the kidnapping of Edward Aaron, an African American out walking with his girlfriend, who was forced to crawl and then castrated; his bleeding wound was doused with turpentine and set on fire. Assistant pastor Charles Billups, an ally of the activist Reverend Shuttlesworth, was beaten with chains, and the letters KKK were branded on his stomach (McWhorter 155). Martin Luther King, Jr., in his essay “Bull Connor’s Birmingham,” describes an environment where “the silent password is fear”: “You would be living in the largest city of a police state, presided over by a governor—George Wallace—whose inauguration vow had been a pledge of ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!’ You would be living, in fact, in the most segregated city in America.”
Even though the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was outlawed in Alabama by the state legislature in order to prevent demonstrations, local black leaders and groups continued to petition and take initiatives against white supremacy. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (1922–2011) was among the most prominent activists in Birmingham’s fight for civil rights. He organized a petition, signed by over seventy black clergy, calling for the hiring of African American police officers. The city commissioners were presented with the petition but refused to act on it, claiming it would anger the white community. Like King and other civil rights activists, Shuttlesworth was the object of physical attacks and repeated threats, and both his home and church were bombed. In 1956, Shuttlesworth and other ministers joined to form a new organization called the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) as a vehicle to organize for civil rights. The ACMHR was supported primarily by lower-middle-class African Americans (in contrast to more well-to-do African American community members, who were often reluctant to directly challenge the status quo). ACMHR pushed for equal opportunity for the economic and social advancement of African Americans, and led a series of actions—from sitting in whites-only sections of buses (modeled on the earlier Montgomery public bus boycott), to Shuttlesworth trying in 1957 to register four students (including two of his own) in a white school.
In May 1961, Birmingham became one of the destinations of the Freedom Riders campaign, initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), in which black and white members traveled together on buses to integrate public bus stations. The burning of one bus outside Anniston, Alabama, as well as knife attacks on Freedom Riders when their bus arrived at Birmingham’s Trailways bus station on Mother’s Day, 1961, reflected the local authorities’ tolerance of violence against desegregationist supporters. In October 1961 a judge ruled that the city’s parks, playgrounds, and swimming pools had to be desegregated; Connor and the two other city commissioners responded by closing down the facilities. From a series of reports by Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times describing the racism in Birmingham and calling it an American Johannesburg, to images of police brutality under chief Bull Connor, bad publicity began to have a negative economic impact on the city. Hence, a group of more moderate businesspeople—who supported segregation—worked to change the city’s government as a means of getting Bull Connor out of office. The two leading contenders in the next mayoral election were Connor and Albert Boutwell, a lawyer and segregationist who had the support of the business community, and who disapproved of the public and violent methods used by Connor.
Meanwhile, Fred Shuttlesworth and others argued that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference should bring its campaign to Birmingham. In September 1962, the SCLC held its convention there, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and his supporters were at a crossroads. King’s earlier campaign to desegregate facilities in Albany, Georgia, had proved unsuccessful, and there was increasing criticism of his leadership. Attention was more and more focused on the action of students and younger activists following sit-ins at Greensboro, North Carolina, and on the Freedom Riders and the publicity surrounding them. The SCLC was a relatively small organization, competing with the NAACP, CORE, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for support from the African American and white communities in its fight against racism, and to achieve civil rights and equality.
After some hesitation, the SCLC leaders realized they needed a winning strategy in order to remain viable; they took up Shuttlesworth’s appeal, and their “do-or-die” Birmingham campaign to end segregation began to take shape. Lessons learned from the earlier demonstrations in Albany resulted in attempts to better coordinate with local organizers and churches, provide nonviolent training workshops, and put more emphasis on getting effective publicity out about what was taking place. However, success was far from certain; King and the SCLC were initially met with suspicion from some local black clergy, and opposition from much of the black middle class and the small elite sector of Birmingham black society, who viewed the organization as too confrontational, as well as being outsiders. There was also ongoing criticism from SNCC and younger activists; for example, King had refused to participate in the Freedom Rides, and the SCLC was seen as too moderate and outdated to bring about effective change in civil rights now.
In April 1963, there was a series of new sit-ins and protests, including a small group of picketers in downtown Birmingham carrying signs saying “Equal Opportunity and Human Dignity” and “Birmingham Merchants Unfair,” led by blind jazz singer Al Hibbler and others. As the demonstrations faltered, the SCLC under King’s leadership finally resolved not to wait any longer: now was the time to take action. They decided to openly, publicly violate the court injunction against protest marches, and to nonviolently accept the consequences of their actions. King, along with Abernathy and Shuttlesworth, saw this public protest—a protest staged expressly to result in their arrest and imprisonment—as part of the spectacle they needed to create in order to publicize their cause. (King often wrote and spoke about the “creative tension” brought about by nonviolent actions as necessary to prod change.)
On Good Friday, King, with Abernathy and Shuttlesworth by his side, led a nonviolent march in downtown Birmingham for racial justice and integration; the event was covered by the national media. As King writes in “New Day in Birmingham,” an essay about the example of civil disobedience, “We decided that Good Friday, because of its symbolic significance, would be the day that Ralph Abernathy and I would present our bodies as personal witness in their crusade” (70). With other nonviolent protestors, they were filmed being arrested and thrown into police vehicles. According to historian Diane McWhorter, King’s “subsequent confinement at the Birmingham Jail yielded the ‘Letter’ that consecrated his reputation.” She points out that there is a legend that it was SCLC member Reverend Wyatt Walker who, after the editing was completed, said, “This is going to be one of the historic documents of this movement. Call it ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’” (McWhorter 335).
Writing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
The influence of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the reputation his public letter has generated, seems inevitable. But during his lifetime, King was a controversial figure throughout the United States, among African Americans as well as whites. As pointed out earlier, the 1963 Birmingham campaign came at a time when King’s leadership and the SCLC strategy were being challenged by other organizations and leaders, including the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC. “In hindsight King’s status as civil rights leader is seen as ‘natural’ but many civil rights activists did not; in fact most protestors at the time belonged to other organizations” (Miller 11). King would also be criticized by Malcolm X and other Black Power advocates for not being radical enough, and for his moderation and acquiescence to white authorities. On the other hand, King was viewed as “poisonous”—a dangerous menace to public safety and order—not only by segregationists but from white moderate political leadership and advocates of the gradual dismantling of segregation. What, then, distinguished Martin Luther King, Jr., as a leader and public figure, and contributed to the significance of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for the Civil Rights Movement?
King became a media magnet and “superstar,” and this was to a large degree because of his language—his skill in persuading moderate whites on the sidelines to accept racial equality. King’s strength as a leader in part stemmed from his “ability to translate the message of the folk pulpit into … an idiom most suited to persuade white listeners” (Miller 11). And in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—just as in the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered six months later at the March on Washington—the content included themes of freedom and deliverance that resonated across different racial and socio-economic communities. If the messenger and the message had resonance, a series of events over the next years, from his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to his assassination in 1968, added as well to his reputation, and that of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Once out of jail, King and others realized that they needed another spark to keep the pressure on. In response to the urging of one of SCLC’s visionaries, Reverend James Bevel (Rieder 108), and other nonviolent activists—and with initially considerable misgivings—King and the SCLC endorsed the Children’s Crusade. During the last ten days of April, Bevel, along with Andrew Young, Dorothy Cotton, and others, conducted training sessions on nonviolence, and encouraged young people to join and march together in a movement for peaceful protest. On May 2, 1963, the Children’s Crusade publicly began; and on the following day, when children and students, including the K-12 brigade, marched in protest in Birmingham, Bull Connor ordered them to stop; when they continued to march and sing, Connor ordered them to be forcibly stopped. The images from Birmingham—police, firemen, and supporting onlookers deploying police dogs and hoses against children and other young people protesting nonviolently—flashed around the world. Reactions against the violence, and in support of ending racial segregation, came from politicians and leaders, including those who had previously urged gradualism. President John F. Kennedy’s speech on race to the county on June 11, 1963, emphasized the need to end segregation. Ironically, a day later, in the Protestant periodical The Christian Century, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was published; in August it appeared in The Atlantic magazine with the headline “The Negro Is Your Brother,” and that same month King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Both racial violence and nonviolent protest continued to mark the landscape of segregation and civil rights. In May, King, Shuttleworth, and Abernathy announced a settlement with Birmingham authorities agreeing to desegregation demands in exchange for an end to protests. But tensions and violence continued. On September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four African American girls in the basement who were there to attend Sunday School. Martin Luther King, Jr., was among those who spoke of their martyrdom and redemptive suffering, while delivering the eulogy at their funeral.
King grew up listening to the preaching of his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., and absorbed the themes and images from thousands of sermons he heard delivered from African American pulpits, as well as in progressive Protestant churches during his theological study at Boston University, and later on visits to churches throughout the United States. King borrowed from these different traditions and individual theologians, integrating the Bible, particularly Old and New Testament stories and images, into his speeches and writings. This ability to synthesize religious themes, universal ethics, and everyday stories of the devastating, destructive effects of racial violence on individuals and families, together with themes of nonviolence and justice, became the hallmark of King’s message—through the open letter, sermons, speeches, and writings.
The popular image of Martin Luther King, Jr., spontaneously writing a letter of protest from his jail cell needs further contextualization. For some time, King and his small group of advisers, including Reverend Wyatt Walker, who was in charge of publicity for the SCLC, realized they needed some type of statement or letter to promote their cause in various newspapers throughout the U.S. and internationally, in order to gain support. Earlier on, a writer from the New York Times had suggested that King write a letter to the paper about the movement; ironically, the Times declined to print “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and it was eventually published in the New York Post. Also, King and others were keenly aware of the tradition of political prisoners such as Gandhi and their letters from jail, as well as the apostolic tradition, particularly that of Paul, getting out Christ’s message through a series of epistles. King had published a series of speeches in the volume Stride to Freedom, but it had not generated the widespread readership the organization hoped for.
Also, while King and others expected to serve time in jail, conditions and treatment varied; in Birmingham, King was put in solitary confinement for twenty-four hours. He describes the darkness and his sense of frustration and worry in the essay “New Day in Birmingham.” As he writes in an “author’s note” on the first page of the published letter, after finally being allowed to speak to his lawyers, he received an old copy of the Birmingham News from “a friendly Negro trustee.” In it, King read the public letter signed by eight white clergy critical of the protests, and he decided to respond to their criticism and their call for gradualism. The content of King’s letter evolved over the following days; he used the clergy’s brief statement as a taking-off point for discussing why civil disobedience was necessary, examining segregation and its harms, and criticizing moderates, such as the white clergy who failed to face the urgency of the situation. In fact, the letter emphasizes how much their cooperation contributed to perpetuating the institutions and oppressions of segregation.
King began writing a response in his cell on April 16, 1963, putting down his thoughts in the form of notes on the edges of the newspaper. The letter is an example of the influence of oral traditions. It is a synthesis, incorporating ideas and phrases from earlier sermons—both those he had listened to in childhood, and his own sermons and speeches delivered at various meetings and civil rights events. King turned the letter into a defense not only of his actions but of civil rights protest in general, a rationale for the significance of civil disobedience. He pointed to the timidity of his accusers and other well-intentioned clergy and white moderates who refused to take a radical stand against injustice, and hence became accomplices to it. He uses the example of just and unjust laws to explain that anyone who breaks an unjust law “must do it openly, lovingly.” If an individual breaks a law that his conscience tells him is not just, and “willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, then this person” is “expressing the very highest respect for law.”
There was a strong oral tradition in the battle for civil rights, which became a cornerstone of the movement in the 1950s and later. This was in part linked to the important role played historically by African American churches, ministers, and communities in preaching the gospel of freedom. From hymns of freedom and resistance, to the pulpit as the center of community organizing, to the church basement as a place to train in civil disobedience, the movement was both inspired and instructed by its religious roots. The language of the letter reflects King’s experience as a preacher first and foremost, as well as his training in theology and philosophy. The language and tone of the letter shifts from polite response to fellow clergy, to prophetic anger, disdain, and outrage. King describes the everyday experiences of the Negro, sometimes using the term “nigger” in discussing the demeaning mistreatment and pernicious harms of segregation and racism. Being put—or often shoved or thrown—into jail becomes part of the badge of honor of resistance.
Nonviolence and Human Rights
The expanded, edited version of what has come down as the text of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” includes description of key aspects of a range of nonviolent tactics, reflecting a mixture of King’s theological/philosophical background and his experience preaching and in civil rights organizing and practices. King emphasizes the concepts of love, mutuality, and interdependence of human beings, their communities, and their rights. Rooted in the dignity of the individual and belief in the possibility of human improvement and moral courage, King’s words anticipate the modern human rights revolution as it will emerge in the post–Cold War era after decades of posturing over which rights trumped others. King’s message conveys the importance of mutuality: human beings and their rights—civil, cultural, economic, political, and social—are interdependent. Political philosopher Gene Sharp describes a series of tactics used in the history of nonviolent social movements. These include speaking out, marching, petition, boycott, and sit-in. Filling the jails with political dissenters is another tool, along with publicizing one’s goals, including writings—from pamphlets to books to letters. Hence, King’s letter of protest during his imprisonment is deeply rooted within the history and methods of nonviolent dissent. And from Socrates to Christ, and Thoreau to Gandhi, King was aware of being part of this heritage, and found inspiration in their deeds and words.
Content of the Letter
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was addressed to a series of different audiences in Birmingham—clergymen and laypeople, whites and blacks—as well as being a nationwide appeal for support of the activities and goals of the movement for racial equality, and to end segregation. In many respects, it was a wake-up call describing the corrosive effects of U.S. racism, not only on blacks but on society as a whole. King explained why actions of civil disobedience against a series of unjust laws were being carried out now, and defended such actions as well.
The letter begins with the particular and local—addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” it immediately points out that King, too, is a member of the clergy, a man of God, and one who is “confined here in the Birmingham city jail.” He has read the clergymen’s criticisms that “our present activities” are “unwise and untimely,” and decided to take the time to respond. In an “author’s note,” King names the eight fellow clergymen. (While King wrote in his conclusion that he hoped to meet them, he in fact never did so. Historian S. Jonathan Bass, in Blessed Are the Peacemakers, traces the impact of the letter on each clergyman’s life and faith. These men were forever affected by the notoriety attached to their signature on what at the time they saw as a reasonable call for moderation and order [see also Chappell’s account].)
The irony that recurs throughout the letter appears in the opening paragraph’s statement that King is “confined” in prison; of course, the fact that he is sending out a message suggests that even if he and others are imprisoned, they cannot be confined, and that they can and will get their message out. Also, by describing the clergymen as “men of genuine good will,” he sets up a category of “well-intentioned” individuals on the sidelines, including church leaders. He will shift voice in later paragraphs, critiquing the assumptions of those who are urging Negroes to practice restraint and “wait” while racial violence and injustice continue.
The letter then proceeds with a double-explanation of why King is in Birmingham. First he writes politely, like a gentleman in a debate, about his role as president of the SCLC and being invited to Birmingham by one of its affiliates, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, to be “engaged in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary,” along with several staff members. “So, I am here because I have basic organizational ties here” (King, “Letter” 77). He then shifts to a moral, universal explanation for his presence in the city, with the voice of an indignant prophet: “Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Just as the Apostle Paul left his village to respond to the Macedonian call for aid, and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the Greco-Roman world, King links his mission as responding to the larger call “to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” He rebuts the accusation of being an “outside agitator” and takes issue with the “narrow, provincial” concept of communities. In emphasizing how all communities and states are interrelated, the letter introduces a philosophy rooted in universal ethics and themes that will become popularized through speeches such as the one at the March on Washington: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about 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” (King, “Letter” 77).
King takes issue with the clergymen’s statement deploring the recent demonstrations in Birmingham, criticizing their failure to express concern for the underlying causes that made such protests necessary. He ironically points out to the clergymen that they would certainly want to go beyond a superficial social analysis, and look deeper into why the Negro community was left with no alternative but to mount a struggle against racism, given the white power structure in Birmingham. The letter then gives a short primer of the four basic steps of a nonviolent campaign: (1) collecting data to determine if there are current injustices; (2) negotiation; (3) self-purification; and (4) direct action. After following all these steps in Birmingham, King declares: “There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community.” In fact, this city “is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” The letter then describes the pervasiveness of racism, from the “ugly record of police brutality” to unjust treatment in the courts, to “more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches than in any city in this nation” (King, “Letter” 78).
Why We Can’t Wait: Direct Nonviolent Action Against Segregation and Racism
In fact, King explains, over the years there were a series of good-faith negotiations attempted by Negro leaders—first with the political leadership, and later with those in the economic community—but they all failed. For example, after meeting with local merchants who promised to remove “humiliating racial signs” from their stores, leaders of the ACMHR, including Reverend Shuttlesworth, consented to call a moratorium on demonstrations. However, the signs remained; once again, a promise had been broken. King writes that under such circumstances, and aware of the difficulties, “there was no alternative but to prepare for direct action in which … we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community” (King, “Letter” 78). Beginning the process of self-purification, including setting up workshops on nonviolence, “[we] repeatedly asked ourselves the questions: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?’” (King, “Letter” 79).
Throughout the letter, King discusses the method and purpose of nonviolent direct action and how it creates a crisis, a creative tension that so dramatizes an issue that a community can no longer ignore it. He writes that while some may be shocked by the word “tension,” he embraces not violent but nonviolent, constructive tension; such tension is needed for growth. King turns to the example of Socrates, who felt how necessary it was “to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truth”; similarly, we too must see how necessary nonviolent gadflies are in order to create the tension in society that will help people move out of prejudice and racism “to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (King, “Letter” 79).
King addresses accusations of irresponsibility directed at the recent demonstrations, which had been called “untimely,” and describes how the Negro leadership had negotiated and waited, over and over again, to take nonviolent direct action. For example, Reverend Shuttlesworth and others had put off plans to boycott stores in March 1963, around the Easter shopping season, so as not to interfere with the run-off mayoral election between Bull Connor and Albert Boutwell. However, once the election was over, they were determined to move ahead with nonviolent direct action. Why not give the new administration time to act? some had asked. Because, answers King, Mr. Boutwell is also a segregationist, and, like Connor, “dedicated to maintaining the status quo.” As King points out: “We will be sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Mr. Boutwell will bring the millennium to Birmingham” (King, “Letter” 80). King then extends the lessons and disappointments of Birmingham to a larger overview of historical change. He points out: “My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (King, “Letter” 80).
The issue of “waiting,” and its link to the gradualist approach advocated by many white moderates—including the Birmingham clergy who signed the Call to Unity letter in the Birmingham News—is repeatedly refuted in King’s text. He writes that, for the Negro, this message has “a piercing familiarity” and in fact almost always means “never.” King picks up on a current controversy over malformations in newborns due to the distribution of the drug thalidomide to pregnant women, writing that “wait” has served as a “tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.” He goes on to quote: “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
King points out that Negroes have waited over 340 years for their constitutional and God-given rights. He points to the decolonization process in Asia and Africa where nations are moving toward political independence quickly, and contrasts this with the United States where the pace is creeping along “toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter” (King, “Letter” 81). King then describes a series of examples from daily life to demonstrate why those who have never felt “the sting of the darts of segregation” may counsel waiting, but those who live daily under this yoke can no longer do so. The examples of the corrosive effects of racism range from lynching to police brutality and even to “kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity.” He points out that most of the 20 million Negro brothers are “smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” King weaves from the international to the local in describing the effects of racism. He describes his children asking why they cannot go to the public amusement park, quoting his five-year-old son: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” The day-in, day-out humiliations are captured in descriptions of the “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 [is] never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’” He describes the fear and “sense of nobodiness” that characterizes the Negro’s existence in a racist society, and explains that there is a point at which human beings are no longer willing to endure such torment, adding sarcastically, “I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (King, “Letter” 82 ).
Just and Unjust Laws
A centerpiece of the letter is King’s explanation and contextualization of the meaning and application of just and unjust laws, and the use of nonviolent social protest to counter unjust ones. King picks up on the seeming contradiction that, on the one hand, civil rights advocates “diligently urge people to obey” the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision, and yet they support breaking other laws. In looking to a greater moral authority, he cites a series of ethical models, including St. Augustine, who wrote that “an unjust law is no law at all”; St. Thomas Aquinas; the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber; and the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. King describes segregation laws as ones that are “morally wrong.” He goes on to explain that even laws which on their face appear just, may in their application be unjust. He cites the example of his present arrest: he has been charged with violating the Birmingham ordinance of parading without a permit. Such a legal rule is, he writes, “unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest” (King, “Letter” 83).
Anticipating criticism, King disavows that he is supporting anarchy in the form of “rabid segregationists” who defy the law; instead he maintains that breaking an unjust law must be carried out “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty” (King, “Letter” 85). And, in fact, someone who is willing to act from his conscience accepts the penalty of imprisonment, and who hopes to arouse the community’s conscience about the law’s injustice, “is in reality expressing the highest respect for law” (King, “Letter” 84).
King traces civil disobedience throughout history, citing examples in the Bible, and from Roman times to the Boston Tea Party. He provides an ecumenical message stating that what Hitler did in Germany was “legal,” and what the freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” But, he writes, if he had lived in Nazi Germany he would have “aided and comforted” Jews, just as, in a Communist-supported country where Christianity was suppressed, he would disobey those laws.
A recurring theme, and one addressed to a broad, white audience, was King’s criticism of people who refused to take a stand—white moderates, in particular. He describes them as people who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”; “paternalistically,” they “set the timetable of another man’s freedom” (King, “Letter” 84). The tone of the letter shifts to indignation and anger at those who for example, signed the public letter urging restraint, and at a letter King received “from a white brother in Texas” who points out that all Christians know that eventually colored people will receive equal rights, but “it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry” (King, “Letter” 86).
In what has become a famous phrase rousing the conscience of the reader, King writes, “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” (King, “Letter” 86). Later, he also specifically writes of the white churches and their leadership as a major disappointment. He points out that there are now and then exceptions, such as Reverend Stallings (who was a signatory to the public letter in the Birmingham newspaper, but who also welcomed Negroes to Sunday worship) and the small, Catholic Springhill College that integrated several years previously. But these are exceptions, and over several pages King describes the “laxity” and silence of the church to speak out, for example, against the words and practices of Governors Barnett or Wallace, or to support “bruised and weary Negro men and women when they decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest” (King, “Letter” 91). Describing himself as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of preachers, King cries out, “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”
The Negro Community, “Somebodiness,” Discontent and Extremism
King briefly describes two contrasting forces within the Negro community. First, he writes, the impact of years of oppression has drained a sense of “somebodiness” and self-respect from some, creating complacency. The other force is hatred, which comes dangerously close to advocating violence, as does Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement (King, “Letter” 87 ). King sees himself as standing between these forces of complacent “do-nothingism” and the despair and hatred of the black nationalist. He writes that he is “grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.” King links the struggle for freedom in the United States with decolonization efforts around the world:
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro…. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brother of Africa and his brown ad yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United Sates Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice [King, “Letter,” 87–88].
King goes on to discuss how discontent can be creatively channeled through nonviolent action to effect change. He discusses being called an “extremist”—a description, he has come to realize, that he and others should embrace. He goes on to describe Jesus as an extremist for love, and Amos as one for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” King continues with a series of religious and national figures such as John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson—examples of men of conscience—and then asks the reader: “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?” (King, “Letter” 88).
Conclusion: Nonviolence in the Face of Violence; Hope for Deliverance and Justice
In his final pages, King weaves a series of images and voices. On the one hand, his is a prophetic voice condemning those who urge restraint and praise the authorities for keeping order, who fail to look more deeply at, for example, how the Birmingham police use violence and mistreat Negroes. But King also commends those who serve as models—such as James Meredith, who faced angry mobs to desegregate his university; a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery who boycotted segregated buses and said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest”; and people of all ages “sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake” (King, “Letter” 94). Here is the prophetic voice of hope and deliverance, from a hopeful visionary:
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 [King, “Letter” 94].
King observes that this letter is much longer than he expected it to be. He goes back to his opening theme of confinement, pointing out that, since he is alone in a narrow jail cell, what else is there to do but “write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” (King, “Letter” 95) And then, with an ironist’s touch, he begs forgiveness if he has said anything unreasonable or overstated the truth. King ends by stating that he hopes “racial prejudice and 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.” He concludes with, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Of course, King may have been “confined,” but his public letter got his message out. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written and published more than half a century ago, and its universal message of deliverance and nonviolent struggle against injustice continues to inspire individuals and communities around the world.
Bass, S. Jonathan. Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. Print.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Print.
Chappell, David L. Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Random House, 2014. Print.
King, Martin Luther. The Autobiography of M. L. King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. Print.
_____. “How It Began,” in SCLC newsletter, July 1963, vol. 1, no. 1.
_____. I Have a Dream: Writings & Speeches That Changed the World. Edited by James M. Washington. San Francisco: Harper, 1986. Print.
_____. “The Negro Revolution—Why 1963?,” “Bull Connor’s Birmingham,” “New Day in Birmingham,” “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Mentor, 1964. Print.
McWhorter, Diane. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Print.
Miller, Keith. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources. New York: Free Press, 1992. Print.
Rieder, Jonathan. Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013. Print.