The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was, in his highly-regarded August 1963 letter to a group of white clergy who questioned and criticized his activities in Birmingham, Alabama, seeking, from the vantage point of his jail cell, to both correct the misconceptions held by those clergy, and to justify the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience to which he subscribed. Why was King in Birmingham in the first place? As he states early in his essay, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." Racial injustice had stood out as this country's most compelling long-term social wound. One-hundred-years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the African slaves brought to North America in chains and treated like so-much human chattel, here was Reverend King sitting in a jail cell in the American South struggling for the simplest of conditions: social and legal equality among blacks and whites.
The group of white clergy to whom King was responding had questioned both his presence in Birmingham and his tactics, and King was forceful and articulate in defending both. To the intended recipients of his letter's criticism of his mere presence in Alabama, King appropriately noted that the injustices he and his colleagues and followers sought to address could not be viewed in geographic isolation. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. . .Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider." King, in other words, had a moral right and commitment to be in Alabama because Alabama is a part of the country of which he was a citizen, and arbitrary, politically-defined borders could not insulate what crimes against humanity occurred within them from the critical gaze of those sitting across these invisible borders.
With regard to the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience to which King subscribed, he noted the failure of passivity and common conceptions of humanity to address the legitimate grievances that brought him to Birmingham. In his letter, he wrote, "You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being." Had the whites who presumably shared his concerns regarding racism and racial segregation been more active in addressing these issues, King emphasized, he and the other "outsiders" would have had no need to be in Birmingham. Passivity and the pursuit of dialogue had failed in the face of repeated acts of terrorism directed against blacks, including home and church bombings and lynchings and the institutionalization of forced segregation. Birmingham, King observed, seemed determined to continue to defy peaceful efforts at desegregation, and its justice system was weighted heavily against people of color, resulting in a completely unacceptable state of being.
In his most persuasive defense of civil disobedience, he asked rhetorically of his detractors:
may well ask, 'Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."
King's goal in issuing his "letter from a Birmingham jail" was to address criticisms directed against him by individuals who unarguably should have known better. The teachings of Jesus, he repeated, provided for the nonviolent activities that were solely intended to correct injustices. He hoped that his "letter" would serve, as it did, as a compelling defense of the tactics he endorsed and practiced in order to affect change.