Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama on April 16, 1963. King and other activists were arrested for protesting racism and segregation in Birmingham. Days earlier, a judge had banned such protests. King and the demonstrators defied the judge’s order, which put him and other allies in prison.
In the letter, King addresses another open letter, “A Call for Unity,” written by a handful of white clergymen in Alabama. These clergymen did not support King’s nonviolent actions. They thought change should be sought through the courts and negotiations with public officials.
In his letter, King methodically counters the clergymen’s notions. He says that he and other anti-racist advocates tried to work with local figures, but the promises they made were not kept. He argues that the tension tied to protest can produce negotiations that are actually effective.
King then conveys the countless injustices that people of color face in the United States. “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair,” says King.
For clarification, King delves into a discussion of unjust laws. He says an unjust law is when the majority force the minority to abide by a code that they themselves aren’t required to follow. An unjust law also occurs when a rule is applied to a minority that was excluded from crafting or forming it. Citing Adolf Hitler, King makes the case that what’s legal is not synonymous with what’s right.
Throughout the letter, King directly criticizes the slanted perspectives of the clergymen. He reproves them for deploring the Birmingham protests but not the policies that created the protests. King takes the clergymen to task for praising the peacefulness of the police officers but not the nonviolence of the demonstrators. Finally, King links the clergymen’s compromised position to the “weak, ineffectual voice” of the modern-day church in America.