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 Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr. Copyright © 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
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 rights. 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 us 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
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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 his 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
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 I 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 this 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
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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….
Copyright © 2009 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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