Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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What are the four basic steps for a nonviolent campaign?

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this letter from imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama, and in it, he feels compelled to addresses some criticism directed his way. He notes that he rarely takes time to address his critics as doing so would leave him time for little else, but he does take issue with those who call his efforts "unwise and untimely." In this letter, he outlines the four key steps in a nonviolent campaign:

Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist: King notes that Birmingham is likely the most segregated city in the United States. Brutality is rampant. The courts treat blacks unfairly. There are definite injustices.

Negotiation: Leaders in the African-American community have attempted numerous times at the time of this letter to reach out to city leaders and negotiate for better conditions. He goes on to note:

But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Self purification: Because of some broken promises by business leaders, members of King's non-violent movement had to answer some hard questions. Were they willing to accept physical blows without retaliation? Were they willing to be imprisoned for their actions? Each person in a nonviolent protest must be fully self-aware of how intended actions may be perceived and have the foresight to plan for the harsh realities.

Direct action: King notes that he is not afraid of nonviolent tension and that he sees it as a necessary means for growth. He states that there comes a point when leaders must "dramatize" the issue so that it can no longer be ignored. The purpose for ultimate direct action is this:

We see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

King concludes this section of his letter by referencing his critics, saying that he has never engaged in a "well-timed" protest that those who have not suffered from segregation could adequately qualify. He asserts that the African-American community has waited for 340 years for civil freedoms, and the time for waiting is long over.

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