Martin Luther King, Jr. writes his letter from a small jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, imprisoned for protesting racial inequality and segregation as a political and social policy in the South. Despite writing from a prison cell, however, King never considers his actions criminal, and uses his letter to argue that while the protests were illegal, they served a greater sense of justice. He was protesting laws that he considered fundamentally unjust for a number of reasons; this form of civil disobedience is both necessary and patriotic.
King notes that it is as important to disobey unjust laws as it is to obey just ones; as such, he presents various arguments to illustrate the injustice of the segregation laws in the South. King explains that laws are manmade but justice is divine, and for a law to truly be considered just, it cannot conflict with moral law. Segregation laws are therefore unjust, as they do not correspond to the law of God. Specifically, King notes, “segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” There is no justice in a law that is morally wrong or sinful.
King’s opposition to the segregation laws are not only religious; he notes that an unjust law legalizes difference, allowing a majority in power to place limits on the actions of a minority. If the law does not apply equally to white and black citizens, it is an unjust law and should not exist. King also notes that he and other blacks were not able to take part in the formation of these laws—they do not even have the opportunity to vote for their own leaders and lawmakers—and therefore the laws are not created within a truly democratic system.
In protest of the laws he considers unjust, King is willing to submit to jail time, an act that shows the highest respect for law the American political process. While legality does not equal justice, King is not interested in committing crimes for their own sake—he and his followers seek the consequences as well, to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice for the cause. The foundation of civil disobedience is the willingness to face the consequences, regardless of how harsh they may be, in order to bring attention to the injustice of the law. This is a patriotic action, and one of the few ways in which African Americans could participate in American democracy at that point in history.
King and his fellow protesters have undergone the four steps of nonviolent protest—the first, of course, is to establish that there is injustice in the community, and King describes Birmingham as “engulfed” in racial injustice. They attempted the second step, negotiation, in vain. In the third step, self-purification, they prepared themselves to face the consequences of their protests, whether they be imprisonment or bodily harm. And once they had sufficiently prepared themselves, they moved on to the final step, direct action. The dire consequences of their nonviolent protests are an integral part of the movement towards justice, as the protesters respond patiently to the attacks by authorities upholding an unjust law. It is this willingness to sacrifice for the sake of progress and a future they may never see that reinforces the justice of their actions.
Near the end of his letter, King calls into question the justice of the police work in Birmingham. White leaders had praised the police for their work maintaining order and preventing violence amidst the protests, but King presents a very different perspective on the role of the police in the Birmingham protests. King denounces the violence with which the police have treated the protesters, including physically harming black women and children, turning their dogs on unarmed protesters, and withholding food from black prisoners. This is violence that his critics have ignored—in fact, when they praised police for “preventing violence,” they were referring specifically and exclusively to black violence, ignoring the cases of police brutality. In public, however, the police seem to have avoided outright violence and maintained a sense of calm throughout the protests. Yet this is unsettling to King as well, as he asks, “for what purpose?” Good police work in service of a set of unjust laws and racist policies is not truly good work. In fact, King describes it as “just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.” Regardless of the police’s behavior in response to the protests, they are working to uphold the unjust laws of segregation, and therefore King cannot commend them on their work.
King is aware of his status as a man who has been imprisoned unjustly, and defends the morality and overall patriotism of his actions. While he freely acknowledges the illegality of his actions, he argues that his form of nonviolent resistance is the best way to bring about change and racial justice. He cannot obey laws that he considers unjust, and in fact feels a moral imperative to disobey them and face the consequences in order to bring light to the injustice of the system.
Justice Quotes in Letter from Birmingham Jail
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
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 agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”
We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”
…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…
We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.
So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit ins and freedom rides.
We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.
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.