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Frequently Requested Documents: Letter From the Birmingham Jail

Frequently Requested Documents

© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" [16 April 1963]

This version of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" appeared in his 1964

book Why We Can't Wait.

(view the statement that prompted this letter)

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 (1 of 11) [12/18/2000 2:13:58 PM]

Frequently Requested Documents: Letter From the Birmingham Jail

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. (2 of 11) [12/18/2000 2:13:58 PM]

Frequently Requested Documents: Letter From the Birmingham Jail

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 (3 of 11) [12/18/2000 2:13:58 PM]

Frequently Requested Documents: Letter From the Birmingham Jail

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. (4 of 11) [12/18/2000 2:13:58 PM]




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Dispensa per il corso di Storia degli Stati Uniti d'America del prof. Daniele Fiorentino. Trattasi della lettera che il Rev. Martin Luther King scrisse dal carcere di Birmingham in Alabama, dov'era stato rinchiuso per aver partecipato a manifestazioni di protesta non-violente, e nella quale esprime le ragioni della sua protesta e denuncia le forme di ingiustizia perpetrate ai danni della popolazione afro-americana negli Stati Uniti del sud.

Corso di laurea: Corso di laurea magistrale in relazioni internazionali
A.A.: 2011-2012

I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher Atreyu di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Storia degli Stati Uniti d'America e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Roma Tre - Uniroma3 o del prof Fiorentino Daniele.

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Altri appunti di Storia degli stati uniti d'america

I have a dream - M. L. King
Speech on Race - Barack Obama, 2008
Democracy vs. the Melting Pot - Kallen
Trans National America - Randolph Bourne