Last updated: May 21, 2019
Topic: SocietyRacism
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On April 1963, jailed for leading demonstrations to demand the desegregation of Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King read in a Birmingham newspaper the statement of eight Birmingham clergymen descrying his assertive tactics. (Carpenter)  In response, he penned a “letter” in which he detailed his reasons for leading demonstrations in Birmingham and throughout the American South, despite calls from many quarters for a less confrontational approach.  In this eloquent piece, he called on the nation to join in support of the demand for the immediate end to racial segregation. (“Letter”)

In particular, Dr. King castigated two groups that he felt had for too long tolerated racism by their failure to act against it: white moderates, and white churches.  The white moderate valued “order,” and all to often, he clung to his well-enforced order even when that meant refusing to do justice.  He preferred a peace which was merely the absence of openly expressed tension to a deeper peace that was the product of justice.  He forever faulted the means used to try to end segregation, whatever these means were; he forever found reasons for delaying freedom for others.  His continual “Yes, but . . . ” held out a promise of equality and justice for blacks, but it was a promise that repeatedly withered on some claim of inconvenience or excuse of bad timing.  King had so tired of the professed but disappearing support of the moderate that he preferred dealing with the straightforward bigot. (“Letter”)

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To King, law and order were merely the building blocks of justice, and it was a perversion of these elements that made them barriers to social progress.  Correcting this situation meant bringing the social system to an understanding that all people had rights that had to be honored.  If the white moderate had forgotten the goal of justice, or had become frightened by the need to force change upon a racist social structure that did not want change, then he needed to be roused from his complaisance.  To King, the tension that gripped Birmingham was a natural and necessary step from a peace based on oppression to a true peace in which every man had the freedom and dignity to which all Americans are entitled.  King rejected the idea that he was causing tension, insisting he was merely bringing it into the open, exposing it so that the people of Birmingham had to deal with it. Racism was like an infection: it was not cured by keeping it hidden; it was cured by bringing it into the open. (“Letter”)

King also rejected the idea that his actions were wrong because they incited others to violence.  He dismissed this reasoning as an effort to blame the victim.  To him, it was analogous to condemning Jesus for staying constant to the will of God.  “[I]t is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence.”  (“Letter”) The time for waiting had passed.  “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. . . .the time is always ripe to do right.”   (“Letter”)

With a few notable exceptions, the white church had been equally disappointing.  White ministers, priests and rabbis, from whom King had hoped for support had often been either outright opponents of civil rights efforts, or so cautious and quiet that they seemed determined to ignore the struggle going on around them.  At best, their support was a stiff legalism, delivered along with sanctimonious shows of superficial piety, and the insistence that the church did not have a role in social issues. (“Letter”)

Where was the zeal of the early Christian martyrs, who prided themselves if they were persecuted by unjust rulers?  Too often, modern churches were weak and uncertain, an irrelevant if overly proper social club offering consoling silence to the oppressive power structure.  While King maintained a strict, disciplined attitude of non-violence, he would not delay.

[W]hen 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 ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, . . . when your first         name becomes “Nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you       are) . . . and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.” . .             I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.                                                                               (“Letter”)


Although nominally a letter, this piece was stylistically a King sermon.  He quoted scripture; cites Aquinas and Augustine; repeatedly analogizes gospel ideals to the contemporary While nominally addressing the eight clergyman, King wrote this piece expressly for publication, intending to respond to the published statement opposing his tactics.  (“Author’s Note”)  Clearly, he sought an audience far beyond the eight local clergymen.  He addressed himself to the nation, calling all people to understand that the time had come for America to confront the issue of racial segregation that remained rampant, particularly throughout the South.  His letter reflects his background as a preacher.  Throughout these pages, one hears his rich voice, alter to cadences, working the rhythms of the language, clipping the sounds of words.  It was written, but it is a piece composed to be spoken. (“Letter”)

This letter was an remarkably effective piece.  First, it showed why civil rights advocates could no longer accept movement at the glacial pace to which white southerners wanted to condemn the progress of desegregation.  Immediately on its publication, this letter seized the nation’s imagination.  It served as a call for much of America beyond the South to embrace and support the civil rights’ struggle, and helped call a generation to its support.  It also solidified Dr. King’s position as the foremost spokesman of the civil rights movement, and ranks only slightly below his “I Have a Dream” speech among his documents as the piece which most influenced America.



Carpenter, C. C. J., et al.  “Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen.”  Apr. 9, 1963, accessed Jan. 29, 2007.  Available at ; public_statement.html;.   Internet.


King, Martin Luther, Jr., “Authors Note” preceding “Letter from Birmingham jail.”  Nobel Prize Internet Archive.  Undated, accessed Jan. 19, 2007.  Available at  ;;.  Internet.


King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Nobel Prize Internet Archive.  Apr. 12, 1963, accessed Jan. 29, 2007.  Available at ; MLK-jail.html;.  ;;.Internet.