Systemic racism throughout the American South is at the heart of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter, written in response to criticism of his nonviolent civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama. King writes his letter from jail, as he and other African Americans have been arrested for protesting the segregation policies and overt racism in Birmingham; those protests violated an injunction on parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing. He gives ample context for the protests he is leading, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, arguing that the city’s “white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” King establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that the protests are a necessary response to the city’s racist policies, as well as the only way to engage whites in substantive negotiations.
While racism and the policy of segregation was widespread throughout the South at this point in history, King calls Birmingham “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” giving concrete examples of the need to protest and bring national attention to their desegregationist cause. King establishes an exhaustive list of the burdens African Americans face on a national scale, and the detrimental effects those policies and actions have on mental health. He evokes images of physical violence such as lynchings and drownings, but also the economic violence of long-standing poverty, and the emotional toll of having to explain to his young children why they are treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
He goes on to point out Birmingham’s record of police brutality towards African Americans, their unjust treatment in the courts, and the “unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches” as just some examples of the deeply entrenched racism in the city. He also points to negotiations with economic leaders in Birmingham earlier in the year, in which local merchants promised to remove “humiliating racial signs,” only to break the promise and ignore the requests of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Some critics wondered why King did not give Birmingham’s new mayor, Albert Boutwell, time to make a good faith effort at reducing segregation and racism in the city. In response, King explains that Boutwell is a segregationist like his predecessors, and will not be moved to change without intense pressure from African Americans and other desegregationists.
King also makes it clear in his letter that he believes discussion is not enough, and that he and his fellow protesters intend to create constructive tension in order to generate change. He laments the fact that negotiation is impossible within a system that is dedicated to “monologue rather than dialogue,” in which African American voices have been silenced by the dominant, white powers of society. King then portrays himself and his fellow protesters as gadflies, who will create the necessary tension in society to provoke real, thoughtful dialogue between blacks and whites.
It is this tension that concerns his critics, but he defends the idea resolutely, arguing that while he opposes violence, the nonviolent tension he is advocating is necessary for the growth and development of American society. Finally, King points out that historically, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” It is only through nonviolent pressure and clear and persistent demands that African Americans will make any gains in their civil rights.
King describes the protests as inevitable at this point in history. African Americans have waited long enough for racial justice to come to them, and are now willing to go out in search of it. “Let him march,” he implores, referring to the gatherings and protests in Birmingham, “and try to understand why he must do so.” With this request, King humanizes his fellow protesters and reminds his critics of the painful effects of historic racism.
King also warns his critics that the most likely consequence of ignoring the needs of these nonviolent protesters is that they will turn to violence; he notes that this is not a threat, but a fact rooted in the history of oppression. He argues that frustration may drive many blacks to join black nationalist movements such as the Nation of Islam, which he describes as mired in “hatred and despair” rather than a constructive drive towards racial equality. Finally, King places this movement within the larger context of American history, reminding his critics that African Americans have endured even greater injustice under slavery and emerged unbroken. He proclaims that if “the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.”
In “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a comprehensive evaluation of the deeply entrenched racism in America. He establishes the ways in which blacks have been degraded and dehumanized by segregation and racism in general, and then combats that dehumanization with several personal notes on the effects of racism on the African American psyche. Most importantly, he establishes the moral imperative to act now, in nonviolent fashion, as the only way to bring about change.
Racism Quotes in Letter from Birmingham Jail
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
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.”
…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.