When Dr. Martin Luther King wrote this letter, he was imprisoned in Birmingham and wanted to address several white religious leaders who criticized his actions in their city as "unwise and untimely." Dr. King eloquently addresses these criticisms, noting that he rarely does so as he faces so many critics,...
and outlines four things to consider when organizing a nonviolent campaign in order to dissolve any public sentiments that he has acted unjustly in Birmingham.
The first step is to collect facts to determine whether injustices are alive. Dr. King notes that he has done this; Birmingham, he has analyzed, is perhaps the most segregated city during this time period. The police brutality that sweeps Birmingham is known throughout the country. The homes and churches of African Americans have been repeatedly bombed with most cases left unsolved. Injustice is indeed alive in Birmingham.
The second step is negotiation. In response to the aforementioned injustices, leaders of the African American community sought to work with white leaders in Birmingham to resolve some of the tension and injustices. Dr. King notes that they have been stonewalled by the city's "fathers." At one point, merchants in the city promised to remove insulting racial signs from their stores, and the leaders of the African American community promised no demonstrations in a show of good faith for these efforts. They realized after several months that they were victims of lies, as the signs remained in the stores.
Dr. King notes that the community then moved to self-purification, the third step. The group began participating in workshops on nonviolence, asking each other whether they could take blows without retaliation. They questioned whether they could face jail time for their protests.
And finally, they took direct action, the fourth step in a nonviolent campaign. Dr. King notes that the purpose of direct action is to create tension that forces people to confront the issues at hand. He acknowledges that some will not think that creating tension and "nonviolent" protests can work together but describes it this way:
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 see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
Dr. King notes that he is not afraid of nonviolent tension, as it can bring new understandings and solutions.
By outlining these steps for nonviolent campaigns, Dr. King shows how the oppressed can make peaceful yet steady progress toward freedom.