46 pages 1 hour read

Martin Luther King Jr.

Letter From Birmingham Jail

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1963

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Summary: “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

This guide is based on the revised version of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," published as the fifth essay in Why We Can't Wait (1964).King's letter is a response to another open letter, "A Call for Unity," published in The Birmingham News and collectively authored by eight Alabama clergymen who argued that the protests were not an appropriate response to conditions in Birmingham.

King opens the letter by explaining that he is responding to their criticism that the protests are“‘unwise and untimely’” (85) because he believes the clergymen to be sincere people of “genuine goodwill” (85).King first responds to the clergymen’s criticism that King is an outsider. According to King, he is in Birmingham because the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), the local of affiliate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLSC), invited him.

King then highlights the example of early Christians like the Apostle Paul, who preached far from home, to make the point that King’s Christian duty requires him to come to Birmingham because of the presence of injustice. Ultimately, “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” according to King, so when it comes to fighting injustice, there is no such thing as an outsider in the U.S. (87).

The clergymen’s objection to the protests is unfortunate because it fails to account for what led to the protests in the first place. The decision to protest in Birmingham is the result of a four-stage process King and his peers followed: collecting facts, negotiating, self-purifying, and engaging in direct action. King provides evidence to show that they completed each step before proceeding to the next. Because they followed this process, the leaders of the protests knew their timing was right.

King next responds to the question of whether direct action is preferable to negotiation by pointing out that “[n]onviolent 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” (89). Far from being destructive, such tension is “constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth” (90). The choice of direct action was explicitly used to force the hands of those in power in Birmingham.

King also responds to the accusation that protests were “untimely” (90) because they did not give Mayor Albert Boutwell, the moderate segregationist who beat extreme segregationist Bull Connor in the mayor’s election, a chance to demonstrate that he was ready to loosen the segregationist regime in Birmingham. King counters this position by stating that despite his gentleness, Boutwell is still a segregationist who needs to be forced to change: “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (90). King gives numerous examples of the personal and political wrongs that have occurred while African-Americans waited for racial equality. Under the burden of such injustice, impatience is understandable.

King next responds to the clergymen’s concerns about the protestors’ violation of laws by distinguishing between just and unjust laws. Just laws accord with moral law and should be obeyed. Unjust laws violate God’s law and must not be obeyed. Segregationist laws are unjust laws that transform the relationship between the oppressor and oppressed into an “‘I-it” relationship that creates separation between people and transforms African-Americans into things. Laws can also be unjust in their application. King provides the example of the law against parading as one that is unjust in application because it is explicitly applied to prevent the exercise of free speech.

King then uses the resistance of early Christians and the Boston Tea Party as examples to establish that civil disobedience is an old and respected response to unjust laws. Refusing to obey Hitler’s laws forbidding aid to Jews or Communist laws that prohibit religious freedom are two contemporary examples of such disobedience.

King expresses his disappointment in the inaction of white moderates, who fear disorder more than injustice and who believe they have the right to tell African-Americans to wait on their freedom.King compares segregation to a boil that can’t be cured “as long as it is covered up” but that can be cured if it is “opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light” (98). The clergymen’s accusation that even peaceful protests are wrong because they “precipitate violence” (98) is illogical and immoral, the equivalent of blaming Socrates or Jesus for the authorities’ role in their deaths.

King follows these examples with a discussion of white moderates’ “tragic misconception of time” (99), which allows them to believe that equality will eventually come as a matter of course. King counters this argument by stating that “time itself is neutral” and that “[h]uman progress […] comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of social stagnation” (99). King believes that this moment is therefore the right time to act.

King also responds to the clergymen’s accusation that his actions are “‘extreme’” (99). According to King, the African-American community includes “a force of complacency [satisfaction or indifference]” and another of “bitterness and hatred,” like the Nation of Islam (100). King’s goal is to moderate these two extremes through nonviolence. Without this approach, King thinks “the streets of the South would […] be flowing with blood […] [and] a racial nightmare” (101).

On further reflection, King shifts to the position that he is glad to be labeled an extremist. Jesus, the Old Testament Prophets, the Apostle Paul, and Abraham Lincoln were all extremists for just causes. Jesus was “an extremist for love, truth and goodness,” and could perhaps serve as an example of just the kind of “creative extremist” the South and the U.S. need to overcome their injustice (103). The few white moderates who have acted by protesting are also such extremists and deserve praise.

King expresses keen disappointment over the inaction of the white church on the issue of civil rights. King praises two of the ministers who composed the letter for their concrete actions toward equality in their churches but notes that during the Montgomery, Alabama, protests, the white church leadership was dominated by “outright opponents” or those who “remained silent” (104). The clergy in Birmingham have been equally disappointing, with some advising compliance with segregation from the pulpit, focusing on trivial details instead of the central issue of injustice, or elevating “otherworldly religion” over social issues (105). In looking over the churches of the South, King finds himself wondering why they have been missing in action when government officials supported segregation and African-Americans rose up to protest.

The modern church is “blemished and scarred […] through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists” (106). In early history, Christians “rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed,” and concerned towns labeled them “‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators’” (107). Their willingness to live out their morals “brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests” (107). Modern Christians are “[a]rchdefenders of the status quo” and provide cover for the power structure in many communities by standing by or opposing activism (107).

The churches’ complicity is dangerous to their survival, contends King. They have already become increasingly irrelevant for young people. King muses that perhaps his optimism in the power of churches to participate in change has been misplaced. Maybe organized religion is only capable of supporting the status quo and change can only come from “the inner spiritual church” (107). King notes that some of his fellow travelers in the freedom marches are people from organized religion. King’s hope is that all organized religions will follow their example.

Even if the churches fail in this moral obligation, King is confident that the struggle for freedom will be won “because the goal of America is freedom,” despite the longstanding oppression of African-Americans (108). African-Americans’ resilience and persistence in believing in freedom despite “the inexpressible cruelties of slavery” means that the current opposition will not win, either (108). The freedom struggle aligns with Christian morality and national values, King argues.

King’s final response is criticism of the clergymen’s praise of Birmingham law enforcement’s maintenance of order during the protests. King says he doubts they would praise law enforcement if they had seen the violence against protestors in the streets and jails. King admits that law enforcement has been more disciplined this time but notes that they are still participating in actions that support immorality in the form of segregation. Instead, the clergymen should have praised the actions of the protestors, who demonstrated great courage and discipline by not striking back when assaulted. These protestors, argues King, will one day be recognized as “standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian [sic] heritage” (111).

King apologizes for the long length of the letter. It was all he could do in a jail cell, he admits. He also begs forgiveness for any flaws in the letter, or the letter’s arguments, and expresses a wish that one day he will be able to meet the clergymen “not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, but as a fellow clergyman and Christian brother” (112). His final thought is a vision of a nation united in brotherhood, one free from prejudice” (112).