After the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against segregation in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, segregationists became more organized, vocal, and extreme. In response, African-American communities formed their own plan of action. Events like the lynching of Emmett Till and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, both in 1955, brought tensions between white supremacists and Civil Rights activists to a dangerous head. The situation worsened due to the brutality of the Birmingham police force, led by the infamous “Bull” Conner.
In 1963, pacifist activists led by the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. created a document called the Birmingham Manifesto which invoked both Christian and American mandates for justice. In accordance with this Manifesto, King and his supporters staged several non-violent protests. During one of these protests, King was arrested for violating a state injunction barring such demonstrations. While confined to his cell in the Birmingham jail, King responded to media critics and the white clergymen in the Birmingham community. These critics published an open letter in the Birmingham News denouncing the “unwise and untimely” actions of the protesters and their “outsider” leaders. King responded to these and other detractors in the form of a letter, which was published upon his release. In this letter, King beautifully and concisely explained the philosophy of civil disobedience. King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” promoted non-violent civil disobedience and urgency in Civil Rights advancement. It was distributed throughout the United States in newspaper and magazine reprints. It reached far beyond the many disenfranchised readers of the time; King’s words are still used to guide and defend non-violent protesters today. Although King minced no words on people unfriendly to the Movement, King was careful not to label any person or group as an enemy. Instead, he pled for a ‘change of heart’ by white moderates, white clergy, and black advocates of violence or who passively allow racial oppression to occur.
Perhaps surprisingly, he did not rail against segregationists; his letter speaks only to those whose minds he thought he could change. The success of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” can be largely attributed to King’s directness and honesty. Instead of tarring all his critics with the same brush, he identified each of them, and explained what he believed to be their rationale for disagreement. He addressed individual criticisms and then turned those words against the critics—instructing them to pay more attention to resolving the situation that precipitated the protests and not on the protests themselves. In the “Letter,” King expressed the frustration towards apathetic white moderates. He believed that these men and women could quickly and easily help the civil rights activists achieve their goals. Many moderates sympathized with and shared the ideals of the civil rights movement, but discouraged protests and demonstrations in the name of keeping peace. Speaking to this group, King stressed the importance of justice. He delineates the difference between “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, [and] a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.” His method of non-violent protests, he claimed, was the swiftest and most rational route to a just peace. The white religious leaders of the South disappointed King even more disappointing than white moderates. Some, but not all, advised their congregations to accept and obey the decision handed down in Brown v. Board of Education. Very few preached a message of toleration and acceptance. For King, this was reprehensible. In his mind, the message preached at every pulpit should have been “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.”
In current scholarship, King is hailed as a peacemaker; this was not the dominant representation of King in 1960s Birmingham. Even though his actions and words were explicitly non-violent, many regarded him as an extremist. King turned the negative epithet of “extremist” on its head, asking his reader to consider historical “extremists” like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus Christ. Looking at injustice in Birmingham and the world beyond, King states that the time has again come for such “creative extreme[ism].” Although he self-identified as an extremist in the name of love and justice, King was quick to disassociate himself from what he saw as undesirable extremes in his community. He lamented the extreme complacency of many in the African-American community. By their apathy and acceptance, these worn-down souls became de facto segregationists themselves. At the other extreme were those who were so angered by segregation and injustice that their anger turned to violence. King calls this force one of “bitterness and hatred.” These angry groups directly oppose King’s philosophy; they put forth a deliberately anti-American and anti-Christian message of violent opposition. King’s doctrine of nonviolence concisely laid out the four principal steps of any nonviolent campaign: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” It was King’s belief that the community in Birmingham had already gone through the first three steps and was therefore completely justified in executing these nonviolent direct action protests. Nonviolent campaigns are more than just a way to gain publicity for a cause. When negotiations have failed, or are not an option, nonviolent direct action creates a public tension that can force negotiations or acquiescence from the relevant authority. Contrary to his critics, King did not believe that this tension was dangerous or even negative. Rather, he saw it as a helpful and productive alternative to the tension created by a violent reaction to the same injustice. King was carefully to ensure that these demonstrations stayed peaceful; screening and teaching volunteers before protests began.
King directly responds to many who condemned nonviolent means on the grounds that they often cause violence. He used the famous analogy of blaming a robbed man for the robbery, on the grounds of his wealth. His point was this: violence is not inevitable nor unavoidable, and it is certainly not the only outcome of nonviolence. Indeed, nonviolent protests like those in Birmingham were proof that there are peaceful means to attract attention and effect political change. Politically, the most important part of this letter was King’s discourse on injustice. In this single short letter, King redefined ideals of justice and injustice, and how justice related to the law. To King, injustice was not confined to an individual person or place. Although he lived and worked in Atlanta, King viewed the suffering and injustice in Birmingham as his own. In his own words, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The last sentence is one of the most famous and enduring of the entire letter. In this discourse on justice, King eloquently described the differences and tensions between what is legal and what is right. Integration and equality, he said, are both “constitutional and God given rights.” In his reading, these rights are separate and distinct. Constitutional rights are bestowed by right of being a citizen of a certain nation, bound by a legal constitution. God-given rights, in King’s eyes, were equally distributed amongst all people, and should not be denied to any group by any other group. Although he expressed the highest respect for the law, King also made it clear that laws are not always just; just and unjust laws can be distinguished by several features:
“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.”
Beyond these philosophical differences between just and unjust laws, there were political differences. A unjust law is forced on a minority by a majority who refuses to follow the law itself. For a law to be just, it must apply and be obeyed by majorities and minorities alike. King went beyond discussing and defining justice and injustice; he provided a manual for change. He advocated a path of civil disobedience, but not of reckless law-breaking; according to King, individuals should only break a law if it is truly unjust, and if one’s conscience will not permit obeying it. If someone chose to break a law, he or she must graciously accept whatever penalty or punishment administered by the authorities. The purpose of this type of nonviolent protest was to alert and inspire one’s community to take action. Although he advocated peace, King was not preaching a message of patience. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is pervaded by a sense of urgency that is especially powerful when contrasted against his message of nonviolence. He stated that he, and all who are discriminated against, cannot and should not have to wait for justice – the wait for justice was a great injustice in and of itself. He called upon his followers and admirers to demand their rights, for they would not be willingly given by their oppressors. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a popular classic among students of language and rhetoric, as well as students of history. It occupies a very unique place on the spectrum of written documents; it is both a private and open letter, a defense and a proclamation, a sermon and manifesto. King masterfully combined the emotion of traditional Negro sermons while maintaining the logic structure of the political world. Famed for his speeches, most notably the “I Have a Dream” speech given at the 1963 March on Washington, King does not lose any of his persuasive power in the written form. He deliberately used rhetorical devices like parallelism, repetition, and theme to make his audience feel, as well as understand, his message. For the full text of the letter, follow this link.
Teachers: The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has been adopted by the Common Core curriculum as a crucial document in American history for students to understand, along with the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. To watch a class analyze the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” watch the video below.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for The Long Civil Rights Movement