Letter from Birmingham Jail
The letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism, arguing that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws. After an early setback, it enjoyed widespread publication and became a key text for the American civil rights movement of the early 1960s.
The Birmingham Campaign began on April 3, 1963, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The non-violent campaign was coordinated by Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing". Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers—while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.
King met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained "A Call for Unity": a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. The letter provoked King and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can't Wait: “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”
Summary and themes
The "Call to Unity" clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. They criticized Martin Luther King, calling him an “outsider” who causes trouble in the streets of Birmingham.
To this, King referred to his belief that all communities and states were interrelated. He wrote, “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… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider…” King expressed his remorse that the demonstrations were taking place in Birmingham but felt that the white power structure left the black community with no other choice.
The clergymen also disapproved of the immense tension created by the demonstration. To this, King affirmed that he and his fellow demonstrators were using nonviolent direct action in order to cause tension that would force the wider community to face the issue head on. They hoped to create tension: a nonviolent tension that is needed for growth. King responded that without nonviolent forceful direct actions, true civil rights could never be achieved.
The clergymen also disapproved of the timing of the demonstration. However, King believed that "this 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" King declared that they had waited for these God-given rights long enough and quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said in 1958 that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Against the clergymen’s assertion that the demonstration was against the law, he argued that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but that "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."
King addressed the accusation that the civil rights movement was "extreme", first disputing the label but then accepting it. He argues that Jesus and other heroes were extremists and writes: "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?" His discussion of extremism implicitly responds to numerous "moderate" objections to the civil rights movement, such as President Eisenhower's claim that he could not meet with civil rights leaders because doing so would require him to meet with the Ku Klux Klan.
King wrote the letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper available to him, then gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the Reverend Wyatt Walker began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.
An editor at the New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, asked King to write his letter for publication in the magazine, but the Times chose not to publish it. Extensive excerpts from the letter were published, without King's consent, on May 19, 1963 in the New York Post Sunday Magazine. The letter was first published as "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in the June 1963 issue of Liberation, the June 12, 1963 edition of The Christian Century, and in the June 24, 1963 issue of The New Leader. The letter gained more popularity as summer went on, and was reprinted in the July Atlantic Monthly as "The Negro Is Your Brother." King included a version of the full text in his 1964 book Why We Can't Wait.
A 1999 study found that the essay was highly anthologized in that it was reprinted 50 times in 325 editions of 58 readers published between 1964 and 1996 that were intended for use in college-level composition courses.
- "Negroes too Defy Ban", Tuscaloosa News, 11 April 1963.
- Rieder, Gospel of Freedom (2013), ch. "Meet Me in Galilee".
- Rieder, Gospel of Freedom (2013), ch. "Meet Me in Galilee". "King was placed alone in a dark cell, with no mattress, and denied a phone call. Was Connor's aim, as some thought, to break him?"
- King, Why We Can't Wait (1964), p. 78
- King, Martin Luther. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". Retrieved 13 May 2011.
- " "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963)", The King Center, accessed 27 October 2012.
- Anna McCarthy, The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America, New York: The New Press, 2010, p. 16.
- Wyatt Walker interview by Andrew Manis at New Caanan Baptist Church, New York City, April 20, 1989, page 24. Transcription held at Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama.
- Margalit Fox (January 7, 2013). "Harvey Shapiro, Poet and Editor, Dies at 88". New York Times.
- Bass, S. Jonathan (2001). Blessed are the peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., eight white religious leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail". Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-2655-1. p. 140
- Liberation: An Independent Monthly. June, 1963 (page 10-16, 23)
- Reprinted in Reporting Civil Rights, Part One - (page 777- 794) - American Journalism 1941 - 1963. The Library of America
- Rieder, Gospel of Freedom (2013), ch. "Free at Last?"
- Bloom, L. Z. (1999). "The Essay Canon". College English 61 (4): 401–430. doi:10.2307/378920. Retrieved 18 Jan 2012.
- Gilbreath, Edward (2013). Birmingham Revolution. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. ISBN 978-0-8308-3769-4.
- Fulkerson, R. P. (1979). "The public letter as a rhetorical form: Structure, logic, and style in King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"". Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (2): 121–136. doi:10.1080/00335637909383465.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr (1964). Why We Can't Wait. New York: New American Library (Harper & Row). ISBN 0451527534
- Oppenheimer, D. B. (1993). "Martin Luther King, Walker v. City of Birmingham, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail". U.C. Davis Law Review 26 (4): 791–833.
- Snow, M. (1985). "Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" as Pauline epistle". Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (3): 318–334. doi:10.1080/00335638509383739.
- Rieder, Jonathan (2013). Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter From Birmingham Jail. Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1620400586
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- Walker v. Birmingham with injunction against protest in Appendix