LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL*
Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 16, 1963
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
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 Brimingham. 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 an 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 Shuttles worth 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 bad 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 with with-drawl 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-oat 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, we
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 South land been bogged
down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
. . .
I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their
willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its
real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face Jeering, and
hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed,
battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a
sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical
profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My fleets is tired, but my soul is at rest." They will be the young high
school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently
sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake. One day the South will know that when these
disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American
dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great
wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the
Declaration of Independence.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you
that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he k
alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive
me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for
anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet
each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us. all
hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted
from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood
will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
*AUTHOR'S NOTE: This response to a published statement by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama (Bishop
C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon,
the Reverend George M. Murray. the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) was composed
under somewhat constricting circumstance. 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 Negro trusty, and concluded
on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.
Text Source: Excerpted from Carson, Clayborne, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998), pp. 187-204.
Text Retrieved from: The Nobel Prize Internet Archive
Picture Source: 1966 Photo by Bob Fitch/Black Star,
retrieved from Life Magazine
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