In a letter addressed to eight white clergymen who condemned his activism in Birmingham, Dr. King notes that he rarely responds to criticism but that, because he respects these clergymen, he’s willing to respond to their statement. He begins by explaining why, exactly, he has come to Birmingham in the first place, since the clergymen criticized him for being an “outsider.” He is, he says, the president of the SCLC, which has ties with organizations throughout the South—including in Birmingham. As such, Dr. King and his associates were invited to come to Birmingham by local activists.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” was published as a response to a group of white clergymen who criticized Dr. King and the Birmingham movement. The letter itself was widely disseminated at the time, as Dr. King articulated his ideas very clearly while spending time in jail for civil disobedience. In a way, the letter was a perfect opportunity to call attention to the fact that he was peaceful, thoughtful, and religious, thus subverting any public narrative that framed him and his fellow activists as dangerous, unlawful people.
On a broader level, Dr. King has come to Birmingham because the city is full of “injustice.” He sees it as one of his duties to respond to injustice wherever he finds it, comparing his work to that of early Christians who traveled far and wide to spread the Christian gospel. Furthermore, Dr. King believes strongly in the “interrelatedness of all communities,” meaning that what happens in Birmingham will have an impact on his own community in Atlanta.
Dr. King ties his activism to his religious beliefs, which give him a sense of purpose—specifically, his religious values encourage him to fight injustice in any circumstance, regardless of whether that’s in his hometown or in a nearby city like Birmingham. What’s more, he emphasizes his belief in the importance of unity, noting that the struggle for civil rights won’t just affect the city of Birmingham, but will have lasting consequences for the entire Black community.
Dr. King points out that the white clergymen condemn the Birmingham demonstrations without condemning the conditions that made such measures necessary in the first place. While he agrees that it’s too bad the city is engulfed in turmoil, he argues that the real shame is that the city’s racism has left the Black community with no choice but to protest and demonstrate against inequality.
By spotlighting the underlying causes that have led to the civil rights movement, Dr. King challenges the complacent idea that Black Americans are the ones bringing unrest to American society. Rather, they are simply responding to the turmoil that white America has placed on them. The people involved in the campaign for racial equality therefore aren’t the unreasonable instigators that many people in the white community would like to think they are.
There is no denying that Birmingham is full of racism and inequality. Dr. King mentions the city’s segregation, its police brutality against Black people, its unjust legal proceedings, and the many unsolved bombings of Black homes and churches—all clear illustrations of why nonviolent direct action is necessary in Birmingham.
Dr. King reviews the miserable conditions under which Black Americans have been forced to live in Birmingham. The fact that so much violence has been directed at the Black community more than justifies the campaign for racial equality. What’s more, it’s especially remarkable that the campaign is centered around nonviolence, considering that racists certainly haven’t shown the same humanity and compassion in their behavior toward Black people.
Certain leaders of the Black community in Birmingham have already tried to negotiate with influential white business figures. Unfortunately, though, the white business owners didn’t hold up their end of the deal. Although they promised to remove racist signs and work toward desegregation, they quickly went back to their racist ways. It therefore became quite clear that the Black community needed to take action through nonviolent direct action.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written and first published before the rest of Why We Can’t Wait—in fact, the letter itself was what led Dr. King to write the book in the first place. As such, Dr. King rehashes some of the points he has already made in the book. In this case, he gives the white clergymen a brief overview of why, exactly, the civil rights movement centered in Birmingham in 1963, explaining that it became abundantly clear that the city’s white power structures wouldn’t work toward racial equality without receiving some kind of push.
Dr. King assures the white clergymen that he and his associates took painstaking measures to ensure that the participants in åtheir movement would remain peaceful. Although the clergymen might think that negotiation would be a better way to fight segregation than direct action, Dr. King clarifies that the goal of the demonstrations has been to force the situation to a crisis, at which point negotiation will finally be possible. Until that point, though, negotiation is useless because the white people in power have shown themselves to be uninterested in making meaningful changes to society.
The point of nonviolent direct action isn’t to disrupt society simply for the sake of causing a disruption—it’s to outwardly challenge the complacency and ignorance that has historically kept white people from actually addressing racial inequality. Negotiating, after all, is only possible if both sides are willing to participate. Unfortunately, the white leaders of Birmingham had shown themselves unwilling to make any progress at all when it came to achieving equality, so it was necessary for the civil rights movement to push society toward change.
Some of Dr. King’s critics have suggested that the movement has come at a bad time. They think that Dr. King and his associates should have waited to see what the incoming city government would do to address racism in Birmingham. But Dr. King knows that Boutwell has the same segregationist ideas as the previous administration, so waiting for him to act would be futile. What’s more, civil rights leaders know from experience that oppressors never willingly give freedom to the oppressed—rather, the oppressed have to demand it. To wait for white authorities to act, then, would be to wait forever.
Once again, Dr. King explains why simply waiting for change to come on its own would have been pointless and ineffective. Racial equality won’t simply come along on its own because powerful oppressors are unlikely to ever willingly stop their exploitative, discriminatory behavior. As such, it falls to activists to push society toward change.
Dr. King is very conscious of the fact that the movement decided to break the law by practicing civil disobedience. He does not take this matter lightly, especially since critics might wonder how he and his associates argue for obeying some laws—like the 1954 Supreme Court decision to outlaw school segregation—while breaking others. There is, however, a difference between just and unjust laws. Dr. King argues that breaking a just law is immoral, whereas breaking an unjust law is a “moral responsibility.”
Dr. King is fiercely committed to living virtuously. For him, breaking the law is no small matter, especially because doing so might make the leaders of the Birmingham campaign look like hypocrites. And yet, he makes a distinction between laws that are just and laws that are unjust, arguing that it’s permissible to break laws that are immoral. In fact, people (and especially ministers devoted to upholding Christian values) have a “moral responsibility” to break immoral laws—an idea that subtly criticizes the white clergymen for failing to do what’s right by supporting the civil rights movement in Birmingham.
Dr. King considers how, exactly, it’s possible to deem a law unjust. Any law, he says, that “uplifts human personality” is moral and just—any law that “degrades human personality” is immoral and unjust. Given that segregation is based on forcing Black Americans into a false position of “inferiority,” it is clearly unjust. Segregation laws are also unjust because Black Americans haven’t been fairly included in the democratic process—and yet, they’re forced to obey these laws, which “degrade” their freedom.
Because Dr. King has determined that it’s permissible—and even a “moral responsibility”—to break unjust laws, he has to formulate a theory that clearly determines what, exactly, counts as an unjust law. Accordingly, he focuses on the idea of degradation, suggesting that it’s unjust for any law to actively deplete a person’s ability to live and prosper. Because segregation keeps Black people from thriving, it is clearly unjust and, as such, ought to be overturned or—at the very least—resisted.
Dr. King has some criticisms of his own to voice. He condemns white moderates for their passive acceptance of racial inequality. In a way, these white moderates pose more of a threat to Black Americans than racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, since their complacency enables racist laws to live on for years on end. White moderates are dedicated to order instead of justice. Dr. King and his fellow activists, on the other hand, are willing to disrupt order as a way of exposing injustice.
Dr. King directly addresses the problem of complacency among white Americans when he says that moderate whites pose more of a threat to Black Americans than hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Although complacent white people aren’t necessarily as violent or outright menacing as members of the Ku Klux Klan, their apathy and willful ignorance when it comes to racial inequality makes it extremely hard for the Black community to bring about change.
Dr. King also takes issue with the white clergymen’s suggestion that his methods are “extreme.” In reality, the SCLC falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between those who have become complacent and those who have joined the Black nationalist movements that practice “bitterness and hatred.” The wait for freedom has been so long that, if Black people are kept from practicing nonviolent direct action, Dr. King is sure they will join the ranks of more extreme causes.
When he talks about activists who practice “bitterness and hatred,” Dr. King refers to movements—like the Nation of Islam—that advocate for more militant measures in the struggle for Black empowerment. By bringing up these more “extreme” movements, Dr. King not only contextualizes the SCLC’s approach, but also subtly warns complacent white Americans that it’s not in their best interest to squash the nonviolent movement for equality—if peaceful organizations like the SCLC don’t succeed, he implies, more forceful organizations will eventually bring themselves to bear on American society.
Dr. King is disappointed in white Christians—especially ministers. He mistakenly thought they would—as Christians—understand and support the cause. He thought they would preach the gospel of racial equality alongside him. And though there have been some white ministers who have done this, there haven’t been nearly enough.
For Dr. King, Christianity provides people with a very clear moral compass, so it’s inexcusable that white ministers have failed to stand up against the injustice of racism. He believes that the fight against inequality perfectly aligns with Christian values. Consequently, white ministers should recognize their religious duty to stand up against oppression.
Dr. King reminds the white clergymen of a time when the church acted as an agent of change. He doesn’t see the contemporary church in this light—instead, he calls the present-day church an “archdefender of the status quo.” If the Christian church continues to stand idly by in the face of injustice, he warns, it will lose followers and fail to attract young people, many of whom have expressed extreme disappointment to Dr. King when he talks to them about the matter.
If white ministers fail to recognize their religious duty to support the civil rights movement, Dr. King argues that there’s yet another reason they should commit themselves to the cause: namely, because failing to do so will turn young people away from the Christian church. The implication here is that times are changing and that young people are actively concerned about the issue of racial equality. If the Christian church doesn’t support these values, then, Dr. King warns that it will lose its overall influence in society.
Although Dr. King hopes that the Christian church will rise to the occasion by supporting the movement in Birmingham, he has confidence that the movement will succeed on its own. The activists in Birmingham will win freedom because freedom itself is written into the very heart of the United States—it is the “sacred heritage” of the nation and the “eternal will of God.”
The civil rights movement, Dr. King suggests, will triumph regardless of whether or not white Christians support the cause. The fact that Dr. King is so sure that equality will win out in the end hints at his overall sense of hopefulness—a form of emotional resilience that most likely comes from his religious faith, which gives him strength in times of hardship. Because he thinks of equality as a Christian value, he believes it will someday become a reality, illustrating what it looks like to have an unwavering sense of faith.
Before closing, Dr. King notes that white leaders have celebrated the Birmingham police for maintaining order and “preventing violence.” There are two reasons why this idea is misguided. First of all, Dr. King argues that the white clergymen clearly must not have seen the violent and aggressive tactics that the police use against peaceful Black activists, including physical abuse and the refusal of food for detainees in the city jail. Second of all, even if it were true that the police have behaved nonviolently, the fact would remain that they’re working to preserve racist and violent laws. No matter what they do to uphold these laws, then, their behavior isn’t praiseworthy.
Dr. King shows how naïve it is to think that the Birmingham police force has behaved in a way that deserves praise. By noting the ways in which the officers have mistreated Black protestors, he makes it quite clear that only someone who isn’t really paying attention to the situation could possibly think the officers have been nonviolent and just. It is exactly this kind of willful ignorance that has made it so hard for Black people to call attention to the way American society treats them. Instead of actually analyzing a given situation, white people are all too eager to look the other way when it comes to violence and injustice against Black people.
Instead of praising the Birmingham police force, Dr. King wishes the white clergymen had praised the Black activists for their courage and restraint in the face of injustice. Someday, these protestors will be the real heroes—not the police officers working to oppress them.
Congratulating the racist white power structures in Birmingham is, Dr. King suggests, a very backward and irrational thing to do. Instead of uplifting the people who actively enforce racist policies, the white clergymen should recognize the courage it takes for Black demonstrators to remain peaceful and levelheaded while facing such terrifying adversity.
Dr. King acknowledges that he has penned a very long letter, but he adds that he is, after all, sitting in jail with nothing else to do but consider the conditions that led to his arrest. He then expresses a desire to meet the white clergymen who criticized him and his fellow activists. He doesn’t want to talk to them as an activist or organizer, but simply as a fellow clergyman. Hoping for a future of equality and togetherness, he signs the letter, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Despite his disagreement with the white clergymen, Dr. King wants to meet with them. As a fellow religious person, he feels connected to the clergymen, even if they’re in disagreement with him when it comes to racial justice. Talking and coming together, he implies, is the only way to find a way forward.