The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.
As with all historic teachings, the biggest challenge in reading Letter from a Birmingham Jail is to actually read it.
After all, many people have strong opinions about it. But most people have never read it.
The task at hand is to read the document, and to thoroughly understand it. Then you will be able to form mature opinions about it.
We are devoting this page to understanding what Letter from a Birmingham Jail says.
The best way to read Letter from a Birmingham Jail is to go to the source and read it yourself.
We suggest you read the source document online at the University of Pennsylvania.
Or listen to it. Here is an auto recording where Dr. King himself reads his own Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
You may wish to refresh your memory of Dr. King. He was a Baptist minister, and a hero of the faith. Like Moses, King had been to the mountaintop and had seen the Promised Land. Read more »
Here is our own summary of Dr. King’s letter:
Unnumbered first paragraph
Dr. King rarely paused to reply to critics. But when eight white clerics criticized him in the newspaper in Birmingham, he decided to reply.
Unnumbered second paragraph
The white clerics argued that outsiders should not come in.
However, Dr. King had official authority to be in Birmingham as a religious leader, thanks to his involvement in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
Unnumbered third paragraph
But Dr. King was in Birmingham for a reason that was even more important than his official authority as a religious leader:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here
Dr. King was compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond his own home town.
Unnumbered fourth paragraph
Dr. King could not 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.
Unnumbered fifth paragraph
The white clerics deplored the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham.
But they did not deplore the conditions of injustice that brought about the demonstrations.
Unnumbered sixth paragraph
Racial injustice engulfs Birmingham.
It was probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.
Its ugly record of brutality was widely known.
Unnumbered seventh paragraph
Last September the merchants made certain promises to the Black community. But the merchants broke their promises.
The Black community had no choice but to prepare for direct nonviolent action.
Unnumbered eighth paragraph
But then they realized the mayoral election was coming up. So they postponed action until after election day.
Unnumbered ninth paragraph
The goal of direct nonviolent action is negotiation.
The direct nonviolent action dramatizes an issue so it can no longer be ignored.
Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
Unnumbered tenth paragraph
The former mayor and the current mayor are both segregationists. Both are dedicated to maintaining the status quo.
Dr. King says the Black community has not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.
Unnumbered eleventh paragraph
Dr. King knows through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.
For years Dr. King heard the word “Wait!”
The word “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
justice too long delayed is justice denied.
Unnumbered twelfth paragraph
The Black community has waited for more than 340 years for their constitutional and God-given rights.
There are two types of laws: just and unjust.
Dr. King would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.
Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
St. Augustine says “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Unnumbered thirteenth paragraph
A just law is a manmade code that aligns with the moral law or the law of God.
An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
Any law that uplifts the human person is just. Any law that degrades the human person is unjust.
Unnumbered fourteenth paragraph
A just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself.
An unjust law is a code that a majority group compels a minority group to obey, but does not make binding on itself.
Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters
Unnumbered fifteenth paragraph
Sometimes a law is just on its face but unjust in its application.
For instance, Dr. King was arrested on the charge of parading without a permit.
But the arrest was made with the motive to maintain segregation and to deny citizens their First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
Unnumbered sixteenth paragraph
If you break an unjust law, you must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.
Unnumbered seventeenth paragraph
Civil disobedience is not new.
It was done by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It was practiced by the early Christians. Socrates practiced it.
The Boston Tea Party was a massive act of civil disobedience.
Unnumbered eighteenth paragraph
Few people in Germany practiced civil disobedience against Hitler. But they should have.
Unnumbered nineteenth paragraph
Dr. King has been gravely disappointed with white moderates.
They are a great obstacle toward freedom.
Unnumbered twentieth paragraph
Dr. King had hoped that white moderates would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice.
When law and order fail in this purpose, they become dangerous obstacles that block the flow of social progress.
The people who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. They merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.
Unnumbered twenty-first paragraph
The white moderates asserted that Dr. King’s actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
Unnumbered twenty-second paragraph
Dr. King was disappointed that the white clerics spoke of his nonviolent activity in Birmingham as “extreme.”
Dr. King sees two opposing forces in the Black community.
One force is complacency. It is Black people who, after long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation.
The other force is one of bitterness and hatred. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement.
Unnumbered twenty-third paragraph
Dr. King tried to stand in-between those two forces of complacency and hatred.
The path of nonviolence has become a vital part of the struggle.
Unnumbered twenty-fourth paragraph
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.
Will we stand hate or for love?
Will we stand for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
Unnumbered twenty-fifth paragraph
Dr. King hoped the white moderates would see these needs.
few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race
However, some white people have committed themselves to the struggle.
One other major disappointment has been with the white church and its leadership.
Unnumbered twenty-sixth paragraph
Dr. King offers that criticism of the church as a minister of the gospel.
He loves the church. He was nurtured in it. He has been sustained by its spiritual blessings.
He will remain true to it as long as he lives.
Unnumbered twenty-seventh paragraph
In the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King felt the movement would be supported by the white church.
However, some of the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South have been outright opponents.
Unnumbered twenty-eighth paragraph
Similarly, Dr. King came to Birmingham hoping the white religious leaders would be allies.
But again he was disappointed.
Unnumbered twenty-ninth paragraph
Dr. King longed to hear white churchmen admonish their worshipers to do what is morally right.
But instead, they stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.
Unnumbered thirtieth paragraph
When Dr. King sees a church building, he wonders what sort of people worship there.
Why do they stand idly by in the midst of injustice and oppression?
Unnumbered thirty-first paragraph
Dr. King has wept over the laxity of the church.
He loves the church. He is the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers.
But now the church is powerless through fear of being nonconformists.
Unnumbered thirty-second paragraph
In the early days, Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.
But in our day, the church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.
So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.
Unnumbered thirty-third paragraph
If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
Unnumbered thirty-fourth paragraph
I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.
They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.
The white clerics warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.”
I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes.
I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail;
if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.
Unnumbered thirty-fifth paragraph
The police exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators.
However, it is wrong to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.
Unnumbered thirty-sixth paragraph
One day the South will recognize its real heroes.
They will be the people who nonviolently acted for truth and justice.
Unnumbered thirty-seventh paragraph
Dr. King never wrote such a long letter.
What else can he do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell?
Unnumbered thirty-eighth paragraph
Dr. King hopes he did not overstate the truth. Nor understate it.
Unnumbered thirty-ninth paragraph
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Note 1. In this letter, Dr. King cites 18 historic figures:
- Jesus Christ (3x)
- Paul the Apostle
- Socrates (3x)
- Reinhold Niebuhr
- St. Augustine
- St. Thomas Aquinas
- Martin Buber
- Paul Tillich
- Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego
- Adolf Hitler
- Martin Luther
- John Bunyan
- Abraham Lincoln
- Thomas Jefferson
Read the source document online at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister, and a hero of the faith. Like Moses, King had been to the mountaintop and had seen the Promised Land. Read more »
Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this page are from the World English Bible and the World Messianic Edition. These translations have no copyright restrictions. They are in the Public Domain.