April 16, 1963
As the events of the Birmingham Campaign intensified on the city’s streets, Martin Luther King, Jr., composed a letter from his prison cell in Birmingham in response to local religious leaders’ criticisms of the campaign:
“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?” (King, Why, 94–95).
King’s 12 April 1963 arrest for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations took place just over a week after the campaign’s commencement. In an effort to revive the campaign, Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy had donned work clothes and marched from Sixth Avenue Baptist Church into a waiting police wagon.
The day of his arrest, eight Birmingham clergy members wrote a criticism of the campaign that was published in the Birmingham News, calling its direct action strategy “unwise and untimely” and appealing “to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense” (“White Clergymen Urge”).
Following the initial circulation of King’s letter in Birmingham as a mimeographed copy, it was published in a variety of formats: as a pamphlet distributed by the American Friends Service Committee and as an article in periodicals such as Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, the New York Post, and Ebony magazine.
The first half of the letter was introduced into testimony before Congress by Representative William Fitts Ryan (D–NY) and published in the Congressional Record. One year later, King revised the letter and presented it as a chapter in his 1964 memoir of the Birmingham Campaign, Why We Can’t Wait, a book modeled after the basic themes set out in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
In Why We Can’t Wait, King recalled in an author’s note accompanying the letter’s republication how the letter was written. It was begun on pieces of newspaper, continued on bits of paper supplied by a black trustee, and finished on paper pads left by King’s attorneys.
After countering the charge that he was an “outside agitator” in the body of the letter, King sought to explain the value of a “nonviolent campaign” and its “four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action” (King, Why, 79).
He went on to explain that the purpose of direct action was to create a crisis situation out of which negotiation could emerge.
The body of King’s letter called into question the clergy’s charge of “impatience” on the part of the African American community and of the “extreme” level of the campaign’s actions (“White Clergymen Urge”). “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” King wrote. “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’” (King, Why, 83). He articulated the resentment felt “when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King, Why, 84).
King justified the tactic of civil disobedience by stating that, just as the Bible’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s unjust laws and colonists staged the Boston Tea Party, he refused to submit to laws and injunctions that were employed to uphold segregation and deny citizens their rights to peacefully assemble and protest.
King also decried the inaction of white moderates such as the clergymen, charging that human 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 the forces of social stagnation” (King, Why, 89).
He prided himself as being among “extremists” such as Jesus, the prophet Amos, the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln, and observed that the country as a whole and the South in particular stood in need of creative men of extreme action. In closing, he hoped to meet the eight fellow clergymen who authored the first letter.
Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.
King, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Ebony (August 1963): 23–32.
King, “From the Birmingham Jail,” Christianity and Crisis 23 (27 May 1963): 89–91.
King, “From the Birmingham Jail,” Christian Century 80 (12 June 1963): 767–773.
King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, May 1963).
King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.
Reverend Martin Luther King Writes from Birmingham City Jail—Part I, 88th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record (11 July 1963): A 4366–4368.
Five Quotes from MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
1. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“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.”
2. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers.
First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until 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.”
3. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
“I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”
All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively.
I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the 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 coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
4. “…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
“I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church.
I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
5. “But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
“I’m sorry that I can’t join you in your praise for the police department. Letter From Birmingham Jail. It is true that they have been rather disciplined in their public handling of the demonstrators. In this sense they have been publicly “nonviolent.”
But for what purpose?
To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.
So I have tried to make it 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 even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”