On April 16, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, and he composed a letter to eight white members of the clergy questioning and criticizing his and his followers’ actions. These clergy professed to support the cause of justice, including an end to...
On April 16, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, and he composed a letter to eight white members of the clergy questioning and criticizing his and his followers’ actions. These clergy professed to support the cause of justice, including an end to racial segregation, but opposed the timing and tactics of King’s movement in coming to Alabama to foment peaceful dissent. The letter from the white clergy expressed serious reservations about a political movement from outside of Birmingham traveling there to agitate against systemic racism and segregation. As King himself put it in response to the question of “Why come to Birmingham,” “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” addresses the criticisms levied against him by the clergy. The first criticism he addresses is that discussed in the paragraph above: Why come to Birmingham? Beyond the abstract philosophical notion that injustice and the need to address it knows no geographic boundaries, King also notes that criticisms of his travels to this deeply racist city failed to address the “conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.” Alabama, as well as most of the South, remained, even after a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, as virulently racist as ever. Birmingham, however, with its brutal and thoroughly racist Commissioner for Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was the epicenter of the violence perpetrated against blacks and others agitating for an end to segregation and the vestiges of “Jim Crow” laws. Connor’s widely publicized use of police dogs and other means of intimidation on peaceful demonstrators became the rallying cry for the increasing number of civil rights activists from across the country. It was in the context of these demonstrations that King found himself and some of his followers in Birmingham jail cells.
In response to the white clergy’s questioning of the timing of the demonstrations, King again responded by noting the failure of negotiations to advance the cause of justice. Addressing his and others’ efforts at eliminating the structure and symbols of segregation, he noted the empty promises that had already been made by “moderate” white leaders—promises that had prompted civil rights leaders to postpone earlier planned demonstrations.
The stage having been set for the demonstrations and for political action, including black boycotts of white-owned businesses, King then explained the rationale for the selection of the Easter season:
We decided to set our direct-action program around the Easter season, realizing that, with exception of Christmas, this was the largest shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this was the best time to bring pressure on the merchants for the needed changes. Then it occurred to us that the March election was ahead, and so we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that Mr. Conner was in the runoff, we decided again to postpone action so that the demonstration could not be used to cloud the issues. At this time we agreed to begin our nonviolent witness the day after the runoff. This reveals that we did not move irresponsibly into direct action. We, too, wanted to see Mr. Conner defeated, so we went through postponement after postponement to aid in this community need. After this we felt that direct action could be delayed no longer.
King notes in his response to the letter from the white clergy their concern that the timing of his actions was imprudent. Again, he reminds the intended recipients of his letter of the futility of further waiting given the paucity of results from having already delayed action. The time for waiting, he argued, was over. We have, he wrote, “waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given constitutional rights. . . I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.'”
King also addresses the clergymen’s “anxiety over our willingness to break laws.” He responds that an unjust law needs to be broken if justice is to be served. He next addresses the clergymen’s assertion that the civil rights activists’ peaceful actions precipitate violence. As with his earlier rebuttals, King notes the futility of waiting any further for progress via negotiation and the absurdity of blaming the victim for the crimes committed against him. Responding to the suggestion that his activities are “extreme,” King notes the paradoxical nature of that proposition. The civil rights movement’s actions, he reiterates, are peaceful and can hardly be categorized as extreme.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail cell in response to criticisms made by a group clergymen who claimed that, while they agreed with King’s ultimate aims in trying to get more rights for African Americans, they did not agree with his methods. Their sentiments also reflect those of the wider population who believed that King and other protestors were not acting appropriately. The letter is his response to those clergymen.
First, King responds to the criticism that he is an outsider who does not belong in Birmingham. His response to this is not only that he was invited to Birmingham, but also that he sees injustice in Birmingham, and “injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.”
Another criticism King responds to is simply that the clergymen “deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham.” King seems to agree that it is unfortunate that the demonstrations have to take place, however, he says, the critics should be more concerned with the underlying causes that make it necessary to demonstrate. King cannot deny that injustice exists, so he knows demonstrations are necessary to make a change when attempted negotiations fell through. King also suggests that the clergymen would be opposed to their method of direct action. In responding to this, he says that he hopes their direct action will lead to a negotiation where the injustices can be resolved.
The timing of the demonstrations is another point of criticism. King provides many reasons for why the protestors took action when they did, but one reason is that they “have waited for more than 340 years for (their) constitutional and God-given rights,” so they should not have to wait any longer. He wonders if his critics had to see “vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim,” then perhaps they would see the need for fast action. King cannot afford to wait any longer and watch more of his people die and suffer.