Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. 

Contrary to what the White churchmen King addresses appear to believe, the struggle for civil rights is not simply a legal cause: it is also a moral crusade. While the clergymen condemn King and his supporters for their willingness to break laws, King argues that if justice would prevail, it is sometimes necessary to disobey immoral laws, such as in the case of the laws that enforce segregation. King is attacking the White churchmen’s narrow legal interpretation of the civil rights issue; he wants them, as Christians, to acknowledge that they have an obligation to a higher law—the moral law of God—and that any law out of line with it should be disobeyed. In this allusion to an Old Testament story, King calls upon the churchmen’s sense of religious duty: surely they wouldn’t condemn Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for their civil disobedience. Thus, sometimes existing laws must be disobeyed in obedience to higher laws. 

It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.  

In this passage, King calls Christians to take a leading role in society once more. Instead of merely reacting to events and obeying the law for obedience’s sake, as they do now, they should be shaping society. In the early days of the Church, Christians actively challenged the prevailing power structure, as they were secure in the conviction that they were doing the Lord’s work. 

Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are. 

Instead of leading the struggle against segregation, the Church preaches compliance with unjust laws. King asserts that Christians should be vocal in supporting the civil rights movement, but instead, they too often remain silent, keeping the system of racial oppression firmly in place. He believes that if the Church would lead on moral matters, society would follow; therefore, the Church should not preach compliance to unjust laws as they do now, but seek instead to remove unjust laws through civil disobedience. 

So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.

Here, King criticizes the White Southern churchmen for their condemnation of civil rights protests and praise of the Birmingham police’s actions against protesters. Just as it is wrong to protest with violence, King writes that it is also wrong to utilize the law and police action to end protests when they are for a just cause. In the context of the rest of King’s letter, this also applies to compliance with the law: in obeying the segregationist policies of the South, the clergymen perpetuate immoral policies. The “moral” means of compliance with the law and the maintenance of peace should not be valued over the fight for equal rights.

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