Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter, from a Birmingham jail, 1963



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Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter, from a Birmingham jail, 1963



In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference brought a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience to Birmingham Alabama. The city had long been a bastion of segregation and racial discrimination. King and his advisers were confident that they could provoke local authorities and bring the glare of national publicity to their cause. King was one of hundreds of people arrested, and while in jail he composed this letter to eight local clergymen who had publicly criticized his tactics.

SOURCE: From Why We Can't Won by Martin Luther Ring, Jr. Copyright t) 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr., copyright renewed 1991 by Coretta Scott King. Reprinted by arrangement with the Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., c/o Joan Daves Agency as agent for the proprietor.
You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) negotiation; 3) self-purification; and 4) direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than any city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts....

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed," according to the timetable 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 a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing Thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given lights. The nations of Asia and Africa are mov­ing with jet-like speed toward the goal of political inde­pendence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter....

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, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find its consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. 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 Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."

Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when 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 mode that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal 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. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an "I-it" relationship for the "I-thou" relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of ins awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong....

Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say the Legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democrat­ically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote despite the fact that the Negro constitutes a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratical­ly structured?...

We can never forget that everything 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 But I am sure that, if l had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to an the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws....

We will have to repent in this generation not as mere­ly for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and per­sistent work 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....

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and of a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and because at points they profit by seg­regation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating vio­lence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It 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 incurable "devil."

I have tried to stand between these two forces saying that we need not follow the "donothingism" of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I'm grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If tins philosophy had not emerged I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss us as "rabble rousers" and "outside agitators"--those of us who are working through the channels of non­violent direct action--and refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded that he can gain it....

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradu­ally gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love'? "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ --"I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist­--"Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God." Was not John Bunyan an extremist--"I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my con­science." Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist--"This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist--"We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal."

So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extrem­ists for hate or will we be extremists for love'? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?...



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 her beautiful churches with their spires pointing heaven­ward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking: "Who worships 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 the clarion call for defiance and hatred?...... The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncer­tain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far 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 vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacri­ficial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th centu­ry.... 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 gone with the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. These men have been the leaven in the lump of the race. 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.... 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 presently misunder­stood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is free­dom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.... One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, courageously and with a majestic sense of pur­pose, facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a 72-year-old woman of Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decid­ed not to ride the segregated buses, and responded to one who inquired about her tiredness with ungrammatical pro­fundity: "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." They will be young high school and college students, young ministers of the Gospel and a host of the elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience's 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 the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence....

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