Letter From Birmingham Jail Book summary
Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail is also known as the Letter in Pieces since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote it in the margins of the newspaper while he was being held prisoner for being involved in a peaceful protest against the systemic racism that existed in the Southern city. He characterized Birmingham, Alabama to be the most heavily segregated city in all of America.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this letter as a reply to the critical public letter titled “A Call for Unity,” penned by eight religious heads of the American South.
Martin Luther King addresses the letter to the eight white clergymen who had publicly criticized the Birmingham protests. King explains that he has rarely had the time to stop to address his innumerable critics, but he understands that these men of God ultimately have good intentions. He hopes to allay their concerns with reason and patience.
He begins by addressing one of the key arguments that the clergymen had made when they had accused outsiders of fomenting unrest in their city through the protest. They had been referring to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King explains that he had been invited to aid the black residents of the city to organize a non-violent protest against the systemic racism that was being practiced by the city government. He adds that he feels compelled to address injustice wherever it exists, and likens his struggle in the city to that of the early Christians, especially Apostle Paul, who traveled beyond his homeland to spread the word of Christ. King also explains that an American cannot truly be seen as an outsider anywhere within its borders and that the racism in Birmingham is not just a local concern but rather a national one.
King then cites numerous instances of discrimination practiced by the city government, including the unsolved bombings of black homes and churches, segregation, and police brutality. He tells his critics that these terrible conditions compelled African Americans to commit to a campaign of direct action. The black citizens had attempted to hold a dialogue with the stakeholders of the city, but it had produced little to no effect, as indicated by the instance of the humiliatingly racist signs that merchants had promised to take down but had failed to do so even after the protests had halted. He explains that the motive of the protests is to create a situation that forces meaningful dialogue which had failed to occur thus far. King believes that privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without pressure, which was what the protests hoped to create.
He criticizes those who tell him that the protests are untimely and that they only need to wait a little while for racial equality to be achieved. King explains that his people have already waited longer than three centuries for their god-given constitutional rights to be realized. He believes that "wait" has now begun to sound like "never." He then lists numerous instances of injustices that had been exacted on the African American population. He concludes the list with the emotional pain that he suffered as he had to explain segregation to his young daughter. King says that black citizens have been forced to feel like second-class citizens for too long so they can no longer wait for change but feel compelled to go out and create the change they need.
King then moves to address the criticism that the protests were unlawful and illegal. He argues that the segregation laws are essentially unjust, and need to be protested against. He explains the essential differences between just and unjust laws. King says that a law may be considered unjust if it failed to correspond to the natural and moral law. He states that a just law aligns with the law of God. King postulates that Segregation laws are deplorably out of consonance with the natural law, and thus protest against them is not only warranted but rather necessary. He adds that such laws are imposed on the African American populace unlawfully since they had no say in the enactment of these laws.
King explains that they had broken the law with an acceptance of the punishment. In this way, they had shown the highest level of respect for the institution of law. He reminds the clergymen that the tradition of civil obedience has pervaded the history of Christianity as well as that of the United States. He cites the rebellion of early Christians against the laws of Nebuchadnezzar and the Roman empire. He also raises the example of the Boston Tea Party, a fundamentally important act of disobedience in American History.
King then moves to condemn the moderate white, whom he accuses to be worse than the racist. The moderate white prioritizes order over justice, and the black people must disrupt order to achieve justice. King talks of another letter that he had received from a white Texan, who had criticized King and his brethren for being impatient. He had claimed that racial equality would be achieved in time, as it took time for the law of God to come to earth. King believes that the assertion that justice can ever be achieved without action is a misinterpretation of both time and justice.
King addresses the accusation that his actions and that of the protestors were those of extremists. King disagrees and explains that theirs is a centrist position between two groups of Black people. The first were those that had become complacent and grown used to Segregation and then some had lost all faith in America and Christianity. He specifically cites the Nation of Islam as an example of the latter. King identifies his organization as the third group that believes in achieving racial equality through non-violent means. He believes that the protests are means of expressing the yearning for freedom that African Americans have felt for centuries. These non-violent protests were the only peaceful means of expression that the black citizens possess and their critics ought to consider the circumstances that led to them before condemning them outright.
He goes on to embrace the term extremist, as he argues that important people have been labeled as extremists throughout history. King says that Christ had been an extremist for love, Apostle Paul had been an extremist for Christ, and politicians like Abraham Lincoln had also been libeled with that term at the time of their rise. King criticizes the failure of the white moderate in recognizing the need for civil rights, but he also recognizes the effort of white individuals that had joined their efforts in promoting racial equality. He specifically mentions the actions of one of the critical clergymen, Reverend Stallings, who had opened the doors of his church to an integrated people of both races. However, King feels disappointed with the overall response of the church to their pursuit of equality. He had hoped to find support in the church since he expected them to understand and bolster his message of equality among people of all races. His hopes had been dashed as the church had been too cautious and resolved to separate itself from the community’s needs.
King harkens to the past when the church had been a powerful force that had opposed injustice and instituted change, something that no longer seems within the power of the contemporary church. King believes that the church would forfeit its wonted place in people’s hearts if it fails to recognize its role in society. He once again thanks leaders who have seen the righteousness of their cause, and hopes that the church will soon see it too. However, King is confident that African Americans will certainly achieve their goal since the very goal of their country is freedom.
He takes umbrage at the commendations for the Birmingham Police department for their role in maintaining order and preventing violence. He argues that these commendations are inappropriate since the police have been particularly brutal in their imprisonment of African Americans through violent means. Additionally, the police may have maintained order in public, but could it ever be worthy of commendation when the segregation laws they are enforcing are fundamentally unjust. He laments the poor fate of the protesters who were truly deserving of that commendation for their bravery, resilience, and discipline in the face of injustice. King is certain that history will recognize these protesters as the true heroes and defenders of the American democratic process.
King ends his letter with an apology for its significant length which came about due to the ample time he had in prison. He also expresses his desire to meet with the clergymen one day as a colleague rather than a protestor.
Author(s)Martin Luther King Jr.
May 19, 1963
Civil Rights Movement, Non-Violent Protests
The New York Post Sunday Magazine