23 Mar

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963. The Birmingham Campaign called for marches, sit-ins, and nonviolent direct action against continued segregation and racial violence in Birmingham. The Birmingham court issued injunctions against these protests. African Americans continued their protests and many were arrested and jailed for their participation, including Martin Luther King, Jr. While in jail King’s allies smuggled in newspapers that commented on the events. One article was “A Call for Unity” written by eight white, liberal ministers. The white ministers opposed King’s actions and called on King and his supporters to desist in their nonviolent resistance. The ministers argued that the justice system would eventually work out the issues of segregation and racial violence.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” addressed and responded to the complacency of these white ministers. King wrote the letter on the margins of newspapers, scrap papers, and a legal notepad. The bits of paper were smuggled out of the jail by King’ supporters and edited. Excerpts of the letter were published in May 1963 in the New York Post Magazine. The full letter, titled “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was published in June 1963 in Liberation and The Christian Century. The letter was also published under the title “The Negro is Your Brother” in July 1963 in the Atlantic Monthly. King also included the letter in his book Why We Can’t Wait in 1964.

Summary

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reminded the white ministers he had been invited to Birmingham to engage in a nonviolent direct action program. King had organizational ties to the area. Moreover, King noted “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Thus, King argued that he and protestors were not “outsiders,” as the white ministers had suggested. They had a right as guests, promoters of justice, and citizens of the United States to be in Birmingham.

The letter then addressed why it was exigent for civil rights supports to be in Birmingham in the first place. Birmingham was one of the most thoroughly segregated cities in the United States. Previous attempts and promises of desegregation proved futile. Businesses had not removed racial signs from stores as had been promised. Thus, King and others’ nonviolent direct action was meant “to create such a crisis and creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

King also responded to the white ministers’ accusations that the protests were untimely. King reminded the white ministers that the new government administration in Birmingham needed to be prodded in the right direct. Moreover, King argued that there was no better time. African Americans “have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” The time was right because African American had already waited too long for justice.

The letter also challenged the white ministers’ notions of “just laws.” King reminded the ministers that just laws were man-made laws that squared with moral law or God’s law. Unjust laws were man-made laws that did not support God’s law. King invoked Saint Thomas Augustine, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich in his explanations of just laws. These invocations showed white ministers that King had been trained as a theologian like them. He could invoke “great” theologians just as they could to make arguments about Christian justice. King also invoked constitutional rights of citizens and the Biblical story of the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace to support notions of Christian justice and protest.

King also indicted the white ministers on accounts of their complacency. King noted, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the 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.” White liberal ministers and Christians were lukewarm in their commitments to civil rights. According to King, “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

The letter also reminded the white ministers that King and protestors’ actions were not meant to induce violence. Condemning nonviolent protests because they might precipitate violent was like “condemning the robbed man because his possessions of money precipitated the evil act of robbery.” This was illogical. Moreover, King also reminded the white ministers that he and the nonviolent protestors were not the violent ones whites should be worried about. King argued that he “stood in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community.” One force was the “complacency made up of Negroes.” The other force was “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.” King urged white ministers to recognize that there was another, “more violent” black movement. King argued that he and the white ministers had a common goal: Christian peace and justice.

Nevertheless, King reminded the white ministers that he was “greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.” He called white ministers and Christians to reform the church, “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.” In the event that the church and Christians could not meet the challenge, King relied on American ideals to uphold justice for African Americans.

King lauded the American ideal of freedom because it would help African Americans achieve freedom and justice. According to King, “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.” Elsewhere King noted, “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” King recognized that American Civil Religion and Christianity ensured the freedom and justice of African Americans.

King closed his letter “as a fellow clergyman and Christian Brother,” “not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader.” King called white liberal ministers to live up to their Christian faith and to take a stand on injustice in America.

See full text of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 12 June 1963, The Christian Century, 767-773. 

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