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“Letter from Birmingham Jail”
16 April 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 statement 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
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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 mayoral 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.
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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
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© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
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.
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© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
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 …
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