Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s seminal piece, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written on April 16, 1963 while Dr. King was imprisoned in the Birmingham, Alabama jail during anti-segregation protests. This letter, which was unusual for Dr. King to issue, was a landmark piece which thoroughly, articulately and deliberately addressed concerns and a call to cease demonstrations by eight local clergymen in the Birmingham community. In order to fully understand the importance of this historical document, it is crucial to understand the context and under what circumstances in which it was written. Only then can King’s words be fully appreciated.
In 1957, Dr. King became one of the founders and first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King helped to set the tone for the civil rights movement by organizing based on nonviolence and civil disobedience using the SCLC as the major vehicle for enacting change (Brunner & Haney). It was as a result of this association that King was in Birmingham in April 1963 to protest the brutality and segregation that he felt was rampant throughout the city. King had been arrested for his participation in a “direct-action” demonstration when a statement was issued by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963.
The clergymen issued a statement that in summary called for peaceful negotiation within “proper channels” (Carpenter, CCJ. et al, par. 4) by citizens of their “own metropolitan area,” (par. 4) clearly indicating that King and his fellow demonstrators were “outsiders” (par. 3) who, though “technically peacefully”(par.5) in their actions were contributing to local racial tensions and “inciting hatred and violence (par. 5). They claimed the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely” (par. 3).
In response to the charges that the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely,” King thoroughly explained the process he and members undertook in attempting to engage in “good-faith negotiation(s)” (King, p. 2) with city leaders to address the racial injustice in Birmingham. King discussed at length the process in waiting for the potential of a mayoral change and a new city administration to engage in negotiations, but delay after delay in the runoff process forced King and leaders of the SCLC to engage in direct action demonstrations (King, p. 2-3). King felt it was not advisable to “wait” for the new administration as suggested by the Alabama clergymen, because in his words, “We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights” (p. 3).
More importantly, as King so clearly articulates in the broader message of this letter, the justice and freedom that was sought by the “Negro” of the civil rights movement was never going to be given up readily or easily by the white majority unless and until direct pressure was brought to bear on the system that continued to oppress the black minority. He focuses his justification for civil disobedience on the need for breaking “unjust” laws. Citing the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law” (p. 4). From King’s viewpoint, any law that was designed to prevent the full recognition of human dignity was an unjust law and worthy of challenge. The mechanism of change was through disciplined challenge to unjust laws in an effort to change the laws through the legal system. It was not difficult for King to discern a just law from an unjust law by applying such a standard, and thereby provided him with a firm rationale for the encouragement of breaking certain laws peacefully but intentionally (p. 4).
In the summation of his letter, King extends the olive branch of peace to the Alabama clergymen, reminding them that he, too, is a member of the clergy and is committed to the prospect of a peaceful coexistence between races. With wishes for peace, brotherhood and that “the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away” (p.11), King reaches out, almost apologetically to the clergymen, conveying a sincerity that is deeply touching. What is most notable is that despite the length and emotion conveyed in the letter, King reminds the readers that, in the end measure and despite all differences to the contrary, men of good faith and good intention have more in common than perhaps they originally thought.
Brunner, B., Haney, E. “Civil Rights Timeline: Milestones in the modern civil rights movement.” Information Please Database. 2007. November 23, 2008. <http://www.infoplease.com/spot/civilrightstimeline1.html#1954>
Carpenter, C.C.J., et.al. “Statement by Alabama Clergymen.” April 12, 1963 The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
King, Jr., M.L., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” April 16, 1963. The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.