Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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What events prompted King to write his letter and what claim is he supporting?

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In this letter, Dr. King is responding to criticisms from "moderate whites" that he should have refrained from organizing mass protests in Birmingham because they were ill-timed, incited violence, and broke laws. King begins the letter by stating that he was in Birmingham as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was invited to the city by the local black population to organize mass nonviolent protests against discriminatory conditions in the city. According to this letter, Birmingham is “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” In the letter, King discusses police brutality, bombings, and injustice through the court system. King also argues that leaders first sought to talk to city politicians, but that these talks brought about no positive change. He goes on the argue that it is only through nonviolent action that attention is brought to the movement and, thus, negotiations can occur.

Without the mass protests, he argues, black concerns are ignored and there are no negotiations. King responds directly to calls from others that he should have waited for things to improve and that the protests were ill-timed. He eloquently and passionately points out that blacks have waited a long time and that history has proven that waiting never yields progress.

Towards the end of his letter, he addresses concerns of blacks breaking laws during their protests. He responds to this concern by explaining the idea of civil disobedience. As such, he argues that it is a citizen’s right, and even duty, to break unjust laws. He gives historical examples of others who were seen as “extremists” in their days and who broke that unjust laws of their world (Jesus, Lincoln, Jefferson, etc).

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