Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Letter From Birmingham City Jail,' Part 4 (36261)

Today’s lesson takes a look at one of the world’s most famous pieces of correspondence: an open letter penned on April, 16, 1963, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is also known as “The Negro is Your Brother.”

The letter was written while King was confined to a cell at the city jail in Birmingham, Ala., following his arrest for his part in a non-violent protest led by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

New York Times Magazine Editor Harvey Shapiro asked King to write the letter to be published in the magazine. King used the margins of a newspaper–the only paper he had. His lawyers took the assorted pieces of paper back to King’s headquarters, where the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker began editing them into the final version.

King’s letter was in response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen four days earlier on April 12, 1963 titled “A Call for Unity,” in which they acknowledged the need to end social injustices but argued that these battles were best fought in the courts and not in the streets. They called King an outsider who stirred up trouble. They further admonished King for the timing and disruption caused by the demonstration. King responded by saying, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

King concludes his letter with the famous words of Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered in 1958: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

The letter first appeared in the June 1963 issue of Liberation; the June 12, 1963, issue of the Christian Century; and the June 24 issue of the New Leader. It was also reprinted in the Atlantic Monthly. King included the full text in his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait.”

Here is a partial version of the letter:

16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some 85 affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. 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 anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the byproduct of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the runoff, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the runoff so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

(To be continued in next week’s “Amsterdam News in the Classroom”)


  • Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Talk About It: Discuss the circumstances under which King was arrested and why he wrote this letter.
  • Write it Down: What are your interpretations of this portion of King’s letter? Discuss your thoughts with your classmates.
  • Read It: Check out King’s book “Why We Can’t Wait,” in which his famous letter appeared in full text.

This Week in Black History

  • Jan. 22, 1801: Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture enters Santiago to battle the French.
  • Jan. 23, 1977: The first installment of the mini-series “Roots,” based on the book by Alex Haley, airs on ABC. It would go on to become the most watched mini -series in television history.
  • Jan. 24, 1874: Historian and famed bibliophile Arthur Schomburg was born on this day in Puerto Rico.
  • Jan. 25, 1851: Sojourner Truth addresses the first Black Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.