Letter from Birmingham Jail

April 16, 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 statements 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.

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 of 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 mayoralty 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 to so 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, we 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 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 stiff 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 dark 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-country 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 go 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 want to 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 awful. Paul Tillich 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 ace 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 fan 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 an 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 rational 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 fist I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that 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.

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 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 non segregated 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 Rio 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 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 leader era; an 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, on 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? l 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. Par 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 vi 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 ecclesia 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 jai 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, ham and all over the nation, because the goal of America k 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 handing 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. There 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. There will be the 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.” There 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.

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9 Responses to Letter from Birmingham Jail

  1. Nicholas DiBari January 26, 2018 at 11:56 am #

    Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (hereby MLK), in his Letters from Birmingham Jail, brings up numerous compelling points about human society and tendency. In the piece, MLK addresses the question of legality versus morality using the example of Hitler’s regime. The notion ties into our curriculum as, when speaking to legal cases, at times evidence that would be otherwise condemning cannot be used: it does not fall into legal protocol. It is irrelevant if that information or testimony would prove a party innocent or guilty (generally) if that evidence is unable to be used. One could perceive this as immoral, despite the institutionalized laws regarding it. It is to be wondered, then, what MLK would have thought of the nuances of this sort of legislature. Is it immoral to have, by legal proceedings, evidence that would otherwise be damning disregarded in a case?

    Take, for example, the Aaron Hernandez case in 2014. Evidence was seized by the police on a number of mobile devices, however, the evidence was disregarded as a result of a misinterpretation of the search warrant given to the police who seized the device (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/08/26/judge-tosses-out-electronics-evidence-aaron-hernandez/OmPqZCaAFiJb4wxqNPeXpK/story.html). Aaron Hernandez committed suicide before the final ruling could be made, but it is interesting to wonder if the ruling could have come about earlier had the evidence from the mobile devices been used. Yes, the law dictated that it not be used, but would morality suggest it should have been?

    The conversation of legality versus morality extends far beyond the courtroom, however. As in MLK’s case, his actions were morally sound though, technically, were punishable by law. This being said, this works in reverse as well, however, with one of the greatest controversies pertaining to legality and morality being the argument between pro-life and pro-choice. Those in favor of pro-life find it unethical to abort a baby at any point, whereas those in favor of pro-choice feel it is a woman’s choice to decide. It is simultaneously a question of morality and a question of legality as the issue falls into a sort of ethical gray area.
    MLK also discussed the tendency of those in power around him to avoid confrontation and the disruption of the established order of things, despite their acknowledgement of MLK’s good intentions. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor,” he writes, “it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Throughout history, we see that, more often than not, groups of people only achieve their ends on a large-scale through organized resistance: The French Revolution against the bourgeoisie, the American Revolution against the British, the Civil War over the question of slavery/states’ rights, and the Civil Rights Movement to name a few. Violent or not, it has historically taken the actions of the many, albeit organized by the few, to make change.

    • Daniel Kim January 26, 2018 at 4:13 pm #

      You make valid points on legality vs. morality for institutionalized laws. To bring the dilemma with legality and decency to a broader perspective, the schools of jurisprudential thoughts attempt to answer this particular issue. For one school of thought, positivist scholars simply believe that laws are manmade. Because of this, society has to obey the law until the law changes. If one follows with this rationale, MLK’s action was illegal and wrong. In another school of thought, natural law academics believe that everyone can discern right from wrong. Therefore, there is a universal decree that applies to everyone. This rule of view allows flexibility to alter specific laws if someone feels that they are unethical. If one follows this reasoning, MLK fulfilled his duty to correct a bill that was unjust.
      Despite these different views on MLK’s actions, there is no correct answer on whether or not if what MLK did was right. On the one hand, he challenged racial segregation practices that were happening at local and state levels. On the other hand, he was defying local authorities who did want him to challenge the status quo. However, we now see MLK as a hero who courageously defied the authority that wanted him to give up his cause for racial equality.
      Looking back now, MLK was able to change his circumstances for the better, despite legal and physical obstacles. In a legal context, MLK has accomplished a tremendous task in convincing the Supreme Court to overturn racial segregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a physical setting, white people discarded their “whites only” signs in public bathrooms, buses, and restaurants. If MLK did not defy the status quo of his time, we arguably would still have segregation laws, and the United States would have been a different place today.
      Because the Civil Rights Movement prevailed, minorities now have the opportunities to pursue their dreams in the United States. Not only that, African Americans and other minorities now enjoy Constitutional rights and benefits from the United States. Although the current situation in the United States is severe, MLK proved that adversity is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps, our issue has the potential to unify the United States once again, if people are willing to take action.

  2. Daniel Kim January 26, 2018 at 2:03 pm #

    This letter from the Civil Rights era is still relevant today. Currently, we are facing political division and racial tension in the United States. These discords are dividing families, friends, and loved ones in different communities throughout the country. Although Martin Luther King Jr. was addressing to an audience, who did not believe in a peaceful demonstration as a solution to the racial segregation, we can take away two lessons from this message to remedy our present issues: a need for action and firm commitment to cause change.
    Throughout the letter, Martin Luther King Jr. elucidates the reasoning behind his action that leads him to Birmingham jail. To summarize, he believed that a “direct approach” was necessary to change the status quo because no one else would stand up for the discriminated minority. Because of this, African Americans had to take the initiative to become social disruptors and challenge their social norms in the United States.
    In later parts of his letter, Martin Luther King Jr. expresses his disappointment with those who remain neutral in the Civil Rights Movement. At first, I did not expect to read about his frustration with sympathetic white people and churches for not participating in the Civil Rights Movement. However, I can see why he felt he had the need to call out on those individuals. During the early Civil Rights Movement, the protestors needed many allies to gain traction with the demonstration. However, there were many “moderate whites,” hesitant to fully support and participate with African Americans in their struggle for racial equality, because the sympathizers were likely afraid to challenge the status quo that benefited them. If this were true, Martin Luther King Jr. had the right to be frustrated.
    In the current day, the American society became a highly politicized environment where no one can disagree without facing hostility. Many people are unwilling to broaden their horizons and major news agencies are doing nothing to help bridge the gaps from the recent presidential election. Therefore, ordinary Americans now must show their resolution to unite the country and look for common ground. This means that we have to take action to find a solution to alleviate this recent polarized crisis. However, just like in the Civil Rights Movement, this also means that we are most likely going to face resistance from different fronts in our pursuit of that perfect union. Despite these uncertain times, ordinary Americans cannot stand idly by while the country rips itself apart because of disagreements. Once, we can come to an agreement that there is a problem; we need the determination to establish a plan and see this idea through. If we do not act, we deny ourselves of the rights that make us Americans.

  3. zhijie Yang January 26, 2018 at 6:03 pm #

    The letter, written by Martin Luther King Jr., defended the strategy of “nonviolent resistance” against racial discrimination. I think it is at the heart of this letter that the people have a moral obligation to overturn unjust laws and take direct action instead of waiting for justice to be declared. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” King wrote.
    Unfair laws are the number or power of the majority of groups forced a small number of groups to obey, but not to constrain their own laws, which is the difference between the legislation. Equally, just law is the law that most forcibly obeys a small minority to compliance and which it itself wishes to comply with. This is equal legislation. Because of segregation laws, however, the law is imposed on a few, and because of deprivation of voting, the law is unfair and has no role in enacting laws and enacting laws. Sometimes, the law appears ostensibly unbiased, but it is unfair to use. There is a vivid example, In 2011, a headmaster and teacher on deaf-handicapped schools implemented varying levels of sexual violence against students and the actual incidents of various abuses were brought to the screen – ” The Crucible(also known as Silenced)” at that time in the domestic set off a “melting pot”, and then fermented into “melting-pot”. The negligence of this failed trial and the sanction of the punisher and the injustice of the law on the moral level are irrelevant. The case was retried, and the people involved were recharged, though at the end of the public outcry. Even so, South Korea’s parliament has adopted a melting pot in particular, strengthening the punishment of people with disabilities and juveniles.
    However, justice has always come too late. Moreover, from this incident, the UMNO incident and the incident of Park Geun-hye, it is probable that there are still some darknesses in South Korea behind the well-developed image that we do not know. But not only South Korea, The injustice which Martin Luther King mentioned in the letter is also strong evidence of the lack of justice in society.
    In such a reality, a man with ideal and righteousness always feels the pressure of blowing like a melting pot of society trying to assimilate you, so you will surely feel deeply impotent. The longer it takes to enter society, the more it feels that fighting against the evil human nature is a war that is impossible to win. But why do we have to fight all the way? Perhaps, not to change the world, but not let the world change us. This is what MLK does.
    At the same time, there are two views or beliefs entangled in the process of human development.
    One group believes that through power, system, law and various technological innovations, we will eventually be able to overcome the evil of human nature. Those who believe in this are going bravely into this society, climbing up and repeatedly searching for it.
    The others believes that such efforts are ineffectual and what is truly important is that we cherish every opportunity in existence that can do good. Such people, who are persistent in this world, help every one in need and helpless.
    We can not say who is absolutely wrong ,or who is hundred percent right, but this society needs justice. Whether the United States, South Korea, China, and any country in the world.

  4. Mary Margaret Miller January 26, 2018 at 6:11 pm #

    Depicted in this letter portrays the feelings of Martin Luther King on society’s views of minorities. In his plea for change, he preaches for freedom for all who are oppressed. The goal of the letter was to inform people from all different communities of the racial issues that existed in America, and what measures should be done in order to change society’s views on African Americans and other minorities who faced oppression and discrimination.
    In 1964, a year after Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this letter from a jail cell in Birmingham, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. Under the Civil Rights Act, discrimination was abolished in public establishments. Under this jurisdiction, minorities could not get kicked out of establishments, arrested, or denied services due to the color of their skin or nation of origin. Restaurants were forced to lift the racist ban to allow people of all ethnicities to eat and be waited on amongst each other and to be treated rightfully.
    An additional part of the Civil Rights Act abolished discrimination in the workplace, but it was not solely for racial reasons. An individual seeking employment could not be discriminated for their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or their national origin. Not only did this legislation protect the rights of minorities, it protected the rights of all individuals regardless.
    Another section the Civil Rights Act was a child’s right to education without discrimination. Children were then immersed into schools without segregation, so equal learning could be had by all. This crucial part of the Civil Rights Act was able to mold the minds of children by showing them they should not judge others due to where they come from and for who they are. Children growing up in this type of learning environment were not only taught the importance of acceptance, but also how changes in our nation would fall on them for the next generations to come. Their experience helped shape our nation today and proved that we are all entitled to our own basic rights.
    Due to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans were given the same freedom and privilege to vote without being segregated from the white voters. To discourage African-Americans from voting in previous years, they were subjected to take a literacy test before they voted. Due to this stipulation, unfortunately many individuals became unable to vote. As this was then ruled unconstitutional, the test was pulled from all polling booths and minorities and African Americans were given the ability to vote without being questioned. In 1975, Congress made the decision to create a legislation to support minorities who did not know English, but still had the right to participate in an election.
    As this letter concluded, Martin Luther King asked that his message be heard, as he feared he would not be able to see the day where discrimination would not change in America.

    “Civil Rights: Law and History.” Findlaw, civilrights.findlaw.com/civil-rights-overview/civil-rights-law-and-history.html.

  5. Frank Mabalatan January 26, 2018 at 6:23 pm #

    Despite being one of the most prominent figures in American history, contemporary society often overlooks or undercuts the qualities that ultimately cemented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as such. An extensively educated man, Dr. King graduated from Morehouse University with a B.A. in sociology, Crozer Theological Seminary with a B.Div degree, and from Boston University with a Ph.D. in systematic theology. While it is obvious this kind of academic resume would lead to a level of intelligence and wisdom suitable for a dynamic civil rights leader such as Dr. King, his Letter from Birmingham Jail portrays him as an even more thoughtful and reflective man. With no other materials but a newspaper smuggled into his cell by a friend and a pad he was later permitted to have, Dr. King defended the civil rights movement using several allusions to the Bible, historical references to the state of Germany under Adolf Hitler, and various quotes from intellectual figures all from his own recollection. Well-read in different kinds of literature, Dr. King developed the ability to rationalize his message of tolerance and compassion to different kinds of people who were entrenched in institutional ignorance.
    Dr. King’s time spent writing the letter in jail during the Birmingham campaign ( see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_campaign ), the most pivotal juncture of the civil rights movement, displayed both his divine patience with the circumstances of not being able to publicly protest with the rest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as his determination to fight until he and his colleagues have received justice. In response to his work in Birmingham being branded as untimely, Dr. King writes, “I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure” and that “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily”. Dr. King’s proclivity for kindness and compassion marks his legacy, but his success is a result of his steadfast opposition to the infringement of human rights endowed by God throughout his entire career. Letter from Birmingham Jail provides insight into the mind of the man who led the world into a more progressive society and properly exhibits the character (which he possessed) needed to lead a people to freedom.

  6. Jessica Williams February 2, 2018 at 10:37 am #

    In the midst of the political climate that we all live in today, the content in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” still resonates with the current issues we face today, especially since it deals with the general division of people based on any sort of difference they have from the majority power. This can be applied to the situation with Muslim people in the United States in the present time, as the travel ban that was enacted last year was to deliberately prevent Muslims from entering the country.

    The presence of xenophobia in the United States has always been prevalent throughout our history, and it, unfortunately, continues to manifest itself in our society today. One primary example of this is the treatment of immigrants in the U.S. today, particularly Muslims. During the travel ban that was enacted by the President early last year, many of the countries that were barred from having their inhabitants enter the U.S. resulted in separated families, people who could not access better medical care or education, and the reinforcement of the harmful generalization that all Muslims are terrorists. King in this article brings to light this issue regarding the impact of not only the outright violent attacks against the blacks, or marginalized group, but the importance of the social implications as well. On the topic of being labeled an “extremist,” King stated,

    “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 not this approach is being termed extremist.”

    The significance of being labeled as an extremist, despite not being violent in nature, is that the label puts Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers subject to the same treatment of people who are appropriately described by the word “extremist.” This would mean that himself and his followers would be subject to an even worse violence than they already endured before, because of the underlying implications that suggest an individual is intending to cause physical harm to another individual or a group of people. In labeling Muslims as terrorists and isolating all who belong to that group, the same violence is being thrusted upon this group in our society today.

    In the example of the travel ban, the banned countries that were included were primarily Muslim countries, however, none of the refugees from these countries have committed an act of terror in the United States in the last 40 years (Source: http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/30/politics/immigration-stats-by-the-numbers-trnd/index.html). Yet it was brought to the law that people coming from these countries into the United States were barred from entering because of the risk of “inviting in terrorists.” As a result of these statistics, the travel ban was pegged as “the Muslim ban,” as the entire basis of the law was to disallow Muslims from entering the country. While the ban is no longer in place and declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because of its violation of the Establishment Clause under the First Amendment (Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/10/18/federal-court-rules-against-travel-ban-3-0-because-it-discriminates-against-muslims/?utm_term=.bde68bf80175), it undoubtedly resulted in catastrophe regarding the viewpoints that society has of Muslims in the country, and how they are treated as a result. This is the issue that King also faces in the article, although they needed to fight for the protection of their rights themselves, instead of only letting the Supreme Court handle it.

  7. Tyler Grzybowski February 2, 2018 at 12:57 pm #

    In his letter from Birmingham jail Martin Luther King, Jr addresses the racial injustice that surrounds the nation and supports his efforts through peaceful protests to work towards making a change. He argues against the notion that time will eventually lead to change and implies that when constantly being told to wait one begins to understand that what is actually meant is never. He uses the quote “justice too long delayed is justice denied” which is a fact that becomes undeniable when it is considered. MLK with his exceptional understanding of pathos and human emotions decries that twenty million African Americans are struck with poverty in the midst of an affluent nation and how he had to break to his six year old daughter why she couldn’t go to Funtown, because it is closed to colored children. These truths along with many others representing the racial injustice faced by African Americans at the time make the concept of “wait” a near impossibility to understand. MLK furthers his position with the fact that not a single human rights gain has been made without some sort of legal or nonviolent action. Without holding peaceful protests and gatherings there would be nothing to compel the necessary changes that need to be made in the United States. As MLK stated it is seldom that groups of privilege will feel obliged to give up their privileges voluntarily. Therefore in order for change to arise a course of action must be undertaken. Freedom must be demanded by the oppressed because the oppressor will never simply give it up. In order to take action against the oppression faced by African Americans certain laws had to be undoubtedly broken. MLK defends this disregard of certain laws down to a standard of moral rights and wrongs. He explains that there are two sets of laws, those which are just and those which are unjust. An individual has both a legal and moral responsibility to obey laws which are just in nature however, he argues that one has a moral responsibility to disobey laws that are unjust; as in the words of St. Augustine “an unjust law is no law at all”. To bring this view into a more concrete statement MLK devises that “any law that uplifts human personality is just” and “any law that degrades human personality is unjust”. As such all laws dwelling on the subject of segregation are unjust in this sense. To take things even further 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”. MLK defends the breaking of such unjust laws to make mockery of the social injustice being faced. In doing so the community is alerted to such injustice that African Americans face and it opens up discussions and with it the opportunity to bring forth change.

  8. Christopher Karant February 2, 2018 at 1:08 pm #

    Martin Luther King’s life and tribulations deal with a battle of legality vs morality. During his civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama King was incarcerated for civil protests. This was a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed so there was no legal precedent for civil rights. In his letter to the council he reiterates his points of civil justice and emphasizes his use of peaceful organization rather than violent protests.
    Dr. King is a very well-spoken individual. In his letter he uses calm reasoning instead of a more aggressive approach. However, from a legal standpoint he doesn’t have much ground to stand on. He talks about the mistreatment of the african american population by the police and the use of excessive force. Since this was before the civil rights law was passed the police were not reprimanded on their use of excessive force against the black population.
    King was incarcerated illegally however because he was practicing his first amendment right to petition which is in the constitution. Moreover, the protests were peaceful and the authorities were the ones who were using force. All of his letters were written with the perspective of authority in mind. Therefore he was within legal his boundaries even though he had less rights than white people. Today we see the influence of his trials because of the civil rights laws today. He fought the legal system peacefully and suffered because of it but in the end changed the laws forever.

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