King Letter from Birmingham Jail Questions

Martin Luther King’s
Letter from Birmingham Jail
“Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the most influential civil rights leader
in America for a period of more than fifteen years. He was an ordained minister with a
doctorate in theology from Boston University. He worked primarily in the South, where
he labored steadily to overthrow laws that promoted segregation and to increase the
number of black voters registered in southern communities.
From 1958 to 1978, demonstrations and actions opened up opportunities for
African Americans who in the South hitherto had been prohibited from sitting in certain
sections of buses, using facilities such as water fountains in bus stations, and sitting at
luncheon counters with whites. Such laws – unjust and insulting, not to mention
unconstitutional – were not challenged by local authorities. Martin Luther King Jr., who
became famous for supporting a program to integrate buses in Montgomery, Alabama,
was asked by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to assist in the fight
for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, where an SCLC meeting was to be held.
King was arrested as the result of a program of sit-ins at luncheon counters and
wrote the letter printed here to a group of clergymen who had criticized his position.
King had been arrested before and would be arrested again –resembling Henry David
Thoreau somewhat in his attitude toward laws that did not conform to moral justice.
King, like Thoreau, was willing to suffer for his views, especially when he found
himself faced with punitive laws denying civil rights to all citizens. His is a classic case
in which the officers of the government pled that they were dedicated to maintaining a
stable civil society, even as they restricted King’s individual rights. In 1963, many of the
good people to whom King addressed this letter firmly believed that peace and order
might be threatened by granting African Americans the true independence and freedom
that King insisted were their rights and indeed were guaranteed under the Constitution.
This is why King’s letter objects to an injustice that was rampant in Frederick Douglass’s
time but inexcusable in the time of John F. Kennedy.
Eventually the causes King promoted were victorious. His efforts helped change
the attitudes in the South and spur legislation that has benefited all Americans. His views
concerning nonviolence spread throughout the world, and by the early 1960s he had
become famous as a man who stood for human rights and human dignity virtually
everywhere. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Although King himself was nonviolent, his program left both him and his
followers open to the threat of violence. The sit-ins and voter registration programs
spurred countless bombings, threats, and murders by members of the white community.
King’s life was often threatened, his home bombed, his followers harassed. He was
assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 6, 1968. But before
he died he saw – largely through his own efforts, influence, and example – the face of
America change.”
“The most obvious rhetorical tradition King assumes in this important work is that
of the books of the Bible that were originally letters, such as Paul’s Epistle to the
Ephesians and his several letters to the Corinthians. Many of Paul’s letters were written
while he was in prison in Rome, and he established a moral position that could inspire the
citizens who received the letters. At the same time, Paul carried out the most important
work of the early Christian church – spreading the word of Jesus to those who wished to
be Christians but who needed clarification and encouragement.
It is not clear that the clergymen who received King’s letter fully appreciated the
rhetorical tradition he drew on – but they were men who preached from the Bible and
certainly should have understood it. The text itself alludes to the mission of Paul and to
his communications to his people. King works with this rhetorical tradition not only
because it is effective but also because it resonates with the deepest aspect of his calling –
spreading the Gospel of Christ. Brotherhood and justice were his message.
King’s tone is one of utmost patience with his critics. He seems bent on winning
them over to his point of view, just as he seems confident that – because they are, like
him, clergymen – their goodwill should help them see the justice of his views.
His method is that of careful reasoning, focusing on the substance of their
criticism, particularly on their complaints that his actions were “unwise and untimely”
(para. 1). King takes each of those charges in turn, carefully analyzes it against his
position, and then follows with the clearest possible statement of his own views and why
he feels they are worth adhering to. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a model of close
and reasonable analysis of a very complex situation. It succeeds largely because it
remains concrete, treating one issue after carefully, refusing to be caught up in passion or
posturing. Above all, King remains grounded in logic, convinced that his arguments will
in turn convince his audience.”
[ N. B. All typographical errors are from the original source and therefore have not been
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This response to a published statement by eight fellow clergymen
from Alabama (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L.
Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M.
Murray. the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) was
composed under somewhat constricting circumstance. Begun on the margins of the
newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued
on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad
my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me. Although the text remains in
substance unaltered, I have indulged in the author’s prerogative of polishing it for
Pre-Reading Questions
1. What kind of injustice did Martin Luther King find in Birmingham?
2. Why was Martin Luther King disappointed in the white churches?
April 16, 1963
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement
calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer
criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk,
my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the
course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that
you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want
to try to answer your 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 an 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 bad 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 with 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-oat we decided again to postpone action until the day after the runoff so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we
waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after
postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action
program could be delayed no longer.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t
negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is
the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis
and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is
forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be
ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister
may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.”
I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent
tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create
a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and halftruths 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-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable
corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated
day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name
becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last
name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title
“Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a
Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and
are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no 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 won ask: “How can you
advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there
fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat 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 distort 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
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 Godconsciousness 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: “An 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 6e 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 an men are created equal …” So
the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we viii be.
We we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist 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, Jeans 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 Walleye 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 greatgrandson 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
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 ekklesia and the hope
of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of
organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined
us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure
congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down
the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to 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
pubic. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past
few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use
must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use
immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or
perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor
and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in
Albany, Georgia but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the
immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the
greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for
their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst
of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the
James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face Jeering, and
hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.
They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-yearold 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 fleets is tired, but my soul is at
rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the
gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch
counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know
that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in
reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values
in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of
democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the
Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your
precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing
from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he k 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,
Questions for Critical Reading
1. Define “nonviolent direct action” (para. 2). In what areas of human experience is it
best implemented? Is politics its best area of application? What are the four steps in a
nonviolent campaign?
2. Do you agree that “law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice” (para.
24)? Why? Describe how law and order either do or do not establish justice in your
community. Compare notes with your peers.
3. King describes an unjust law as “a code that a numerical or power majority group
compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself” (para. 17). Devise
one or two other definitions of an unjust law. What unjust laws currently on the books do
you disagree with?
4. What do you think is the best- written paragraph in the essay? Why?
5. King cites “tension” in paragraph 10 and elsewhere as a beneficial force. Do you
agree? What kind of tension does he mean?
6. In what ways was King an extremist (paras. 30–31)?
7. In his letter, to what extent does King consider the needs of women? Would he feel
that issues of women’s rights are unrelated to issues of racial equality?
8. According to King, how should a government function in relation to the needs of the
individual? Does he feel, like Thoreau’s “Chinese philosopher,” that the empire is built
on the individual?
Calendar Questions
1. Discuss the question of what one does when one must face an unjust law. What are
the real choices? What are the moral imperatives?
2. King worked very hard on behalf of African-American people in the South. It is
useful to see in his letter the extent to which he expressed concern for one race over
another. To what extent is this a “nonracial” document?
* Jacobus, Lee A., ed. A World of Idea, 10th edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.

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