Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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What does the quote "an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" mean in "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?

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This sentence from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter refers to the idea that equality under the law is the cornerstone of representative democracy. It also connects to the concept that, separately from their legal designation, civil rights are human rights. Dr. King wrote the letter while jailed during marches that were held in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest segregation. Many children had joined the demonstrations because segregation strongly affected their schools.

Dr. King encourages his readers to remember that laws affect everyone throughout the entire nation, including the people who pass them and the people who ostensibly benefit from them, no matter where they live. Laws that uphold segregation of public facilities, such as schools, on the basis of race are not just harmful to the African American people against whom discrimination is legalized; this type of discrimination negatively affects white people as well because, whether or not they believe in the principles behind the laws, they too must uphold them.

Such laws also harm the lawmakers because they are actively participating in perpetuating an unfair system, which creates a moral burden. Only they can decide whether, or to what extent, their conscience supports the fact they are knowingly perpetuating injustice. While legal discrimination differs among the U.S. states, the fact that any state has such laws is a dark stain on all of American democracy.

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In the paragraph preceding the one in which this quote appears, King mentions that, like the Biblical apostle Paul, he feels compelled to go wherever there is need of his help. He then states that all people in the United States are tied together in a web of mutuality in which an injustice in one place threatens justice anywhere.

This means that once people of ill intent see a group get away with an injustice in one part of the country, they are emboldened to try it somewhere else. The more locations in which people, for whatever reason, get away with further injustice, the more easily it can spread. It can even start to seem normative.

Although he keeps his focus on the United States and doesn't specifically quote John Donne, Donne's words echo behind what King says. Donne too was a clergyman, and in a famous meditation he noted that we, as human beings, are all interconnected. When a bell tolls to communicate that someone has died, it effects all of us, even if we didn't know the person, because all people contribute their gifts to the world.

King wants his audience of mostly white pastors sitting on the sidelines of the Civil Rights struggle to understand that blacks, even in a far away place, are an important part of the fabric of American life. He is urging them to join in the struggle, saying it is about them too.

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Dr. King's letter was composed as he sat in a Birmingham jail because a court had previously ordered that King was prohibited from staging protests in Birmingham, Alabama. 

In his letter that he has composed while sitting in jail, Dr. King argues that since Alabama is a state just like Georgia, there is "an inescapable network of mutuality." In other words, if there were injustice in Atlanta where a civil rights demonstration was held, why would there not be injustice in Birmingham? Should he not, then, be permitted to stage a demonstration in this city too? 

King declares, "An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" because if the injustice of not allowing a peaceful assembly can happen in Birmingham, why can it not happen somewhere else in the United States? The right to assemble falls under the First Amendment, and there can be no exceptions made. 

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What King means when he says this is that we cannot conceive of ourselves as separate from all the other people in the world.  As King says, he cannot sit in Atlanta and think that things in Birmingham do not affect him.  Instead, he says, we all have to understand that we are connected to all the other people of the world.  This is true because we are all part of the same “garment of destiny.”

But why is this true?  Why are we all tied to one another?  The reason for this is that we all live in the same world.  Perhaps it would help to think of this in terms of pollution.  A polluting factory in one part of America is a threat to air quality everywhere.  For one thing, the toxins can travel from one place to another.  For another, the idea that it is okay to pollute the air leads others to start polluting.  Soon, all air might be polluted. 

The same thing can apply to human society.  If we allow injustice to happen to some people or in some places, we endanger everyone.  We allow people to think that it is alright to act unjustly towards some people.  This attitude can spread until eventually people might act unjustly in more and more places.  This comes to endanger our entire society.

Thus, King is saying that we need to oppose injustice anywhere we see it, in part because it could end up harming us directly.

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