Letter Written By MLK From Birmingham City Jail, A Essay

This essay has a total of 7032 words and 25 pages.

Letter Written By MLK From Birmingham City Jail, Alabama

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement
calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism
of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my
secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the
course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that
you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want
to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here In Birmingham, since you have been influenced by
the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." I have the honor of serving as
president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in
every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five
affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian
Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources
with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on
call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We
readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with
several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here I am here because I have
organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of
the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far
beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village
of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman
world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like
Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot
sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice
anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of
mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all
indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside
agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an
outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry
to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the
demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial
kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with
underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham,
but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro
community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to
determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We
have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that
racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly
segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known.
Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more
unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the
nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions,
Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently
refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic
community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the
merchants--for example, to remove the stores' humiliating racial signs. On the basis of
these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian
Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and
months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs,
briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep
disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action,
whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the
conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved,
we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on
nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without
retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our
direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is
the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program
would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to
bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham's mayoralty election was coming up in March, and we
speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the
Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in
the run-off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that
the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to
see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement.
Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be
delayed no longer.

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation
a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very
purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and
foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced
to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be
ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister
may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension."
I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent
tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to
create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and
half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must
we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will
help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of
understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it
will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for
negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to
live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have
taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city
administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new
Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it
will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor
will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person
than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status
quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of
massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from
devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single
gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is
an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as
Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the
oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a
direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered
unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It
rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always
meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice
too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The
nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political
independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at
a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of
segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and
fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen
hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you
see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage
of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted
and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she
can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see
tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children,
and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see
her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward
white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking:
"Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county
drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of
your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day
out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger,"
your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John,"
and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried
by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe
stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and
outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of
"nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a
time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into
the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable
impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly
a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's
decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem
rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you
advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there
are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just
laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely,
one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine
that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just
or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of
God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the
terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal
law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades
human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation
distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of
superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the
terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for
an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence
segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is
morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation
an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible
sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court,
for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they
are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code
that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not
make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a
code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself.
This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as
a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.
Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was
democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to
prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which,
even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is
registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically
structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have
been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in
having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes
unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment
privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I
advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to
anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness
to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells
him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse
the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest
respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced
sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of
Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced
superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the
excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the
Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced
civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of
civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and
everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal"
to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in
Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived
in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are
suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must
confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white
moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great
stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the
Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice;
who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is
the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but
I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can
set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and
who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow
understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding
from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright
rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the
purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the
dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the
white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase
of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted
his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the
dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct
action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension
that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.
Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with
all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed,
with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of
national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned
because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like
condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of
robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth
and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which
they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique
God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of
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