Letter from Birmingham Jail

by

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail Summary

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to criticism of the nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1963. In the letter, King responds specifically to a statement published in a local newspaper by eight white clergymen, calling the protests “unwise and untimely” and condemning to the “outsiders” who were leading them.

He begins his letter by calling the clergymen people of “genuine goodwill” and acknowledging the sincerity of their concern, setting a tone of reasonable dialogue. He then responds to the claims that he is an outsider by informing his critics that as the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he was invited to Birmingham to support the African American residents fight for their civil rights. Beyond that, he argues that he is in Birmingham “because injustice is here,” and like the Apostle Paul and other early Christians, he must answer the call for aid.

King also rebuts the critics’ argument that segregation laws should be fought in the courts and not on the streets, explaining that only through direct action can they force the white majority to confront the issue of racism and enter into true dialogue. While the protesters are breaking laws—which is precisely why King must write his letter from the Birmingham City jail—those laws are immoral and unjust, and civil disobedience is thus a patriotic response.

In addition to responding directly to the criticisms brought forth by the clergymen, King uses his letter to make his own judgments as well. He expresses his extreme disappointment at white moderates, whom he considers more detrimental to the cause of racial equality than the Ku Klux Klan. He condemns the fact that the moderate claims to support the mission while rejecting all attempts at direct action. He would rather be considered an extremist “for the cause of justice” than stand by and passively allow those injustices to persist, as the white moderate has done in the South.

King then extends his criticism to the leadership of the white church for championing the status quo. He expected more of the church, an institution that once “transformed the mores of society,” but laments the fact that the contemporary church has fallen far from its early Christian origins to become “an irrelevant social club” rather than a source of inspiration. Yet with all of his concern about the lack of support for the cause of racial equality and desegregation, King closes his letter on a hopeful note, expressing his belief that African Americans will achieve the freedom and equality they are fighting for.