Letter From a Birmingham Jail

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Letter From a Birmingham Jail


By: Martin Luther King Jr.

Date: April 16, 1963

Source: Estate of Martin Luther King Jr.

About the Author: Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was a Baptist minister and civil rights leader who, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, spearheaded the struggle for racial equality throughout the late 1950s and 1960s.


Of all the inspiring words that came out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, few are as famous as those contained in Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Written in response to eight white local clergy who criticized his work and ideas as unwise and wrong, the letter is King's explanation of the importance of civil rights protesting. It is one of the most famous documents in American history.

By the 1950s, Birmingham, Alabama, a steel city that had once represented the best of the New South, had become symbolic of a South determined to maintain the old racial ways. Eugene "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's notorious Commissioner of Public Safety, maintained white supremacy with a ferocious combination of arrests, harassment, and violence. Since founding the Alabama Christian Movement in 1956, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth had doggedly battled Birmingham's white leadership. For his efforts, Shuttlesworth was blown out of bed by an explosion on Christmas night in 1956, hauled off to jail for trying to desegregate a bus in 1957, and saw his church turned into rubble by dynamite in 1958. In 1962, Shuttlesworth persuaded the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), led by King to target its protests at segregation in Birmingham.

King had a good chance of getting killed in Birmingham. Yet the city's business leaders were also worried. SCLC had scheduled its protests to begin in the fall, with the aim of disrupting the central business district when it was most vulnerable during the Christmas shopping season. The chamber of commerce stopped the protests by agreeing to integrate the public facilities in five downtown stores. The agreement collapsed when Connor threatened to prosecute the stores. With Christmas too close for an effective boycott, King and Shuttlesworth rescheduled the protests to coincide with the Easter shopping season.

On April 3, 1963, SCLC began its Birmingham protest. However, by this time, Connor had lost his reelection bid to a racial moderate and many of the black middle class in Birmingham opposed the protests because they feared such demonstrations might jeopardize the slow but steady progress on race relations in the city. Many local blacks also were angry about being kept out of the planning for the demonstrations, while Birmingham's black newspaper criticized King for being a mere publicity seeker. Confronted by widespread opposition and resentment, King decided to go to jail to inspire support. He wanted to stiffen the resolve of his backers, get national publicity for the protests, and pressure the federal government to take some sort of positive action. King entered Birmingham Jail on Good Friday for violating an injunction against protesting. He finished "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," composed in the margins of a newspaper with a stubby pencil, before being released on bail on April 20.

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"Letter from a Birmingham Jail" can be seen as one of the best justifications of nonviolence as a political strategy ever articulated. Influenced by Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi's concept of satyagraha, King used love as the instrument to overthrow the violent hatred of white racists. In Birmingham, Connor was the violent racist. On May 2, hundreds of black schoolchildren, at the urging of the SCLC, marched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church into the arms of arresting officers. Within a week, more than 2,000 children were in police custody. Connor could not control his anger any longer. Under his command, the police turned German shepherds upon the protesters, in a scene that reminded many observers of Nazi Germany. The marchers who failed to disperse were than assaulted with high-pressure water hoses.

The scenes of racial brutality drew international condemnation, at a time when the United States sought to win the Cold War by winning the hearts and minds of the people in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Europe. The Soviet Union quickly capitalized on the incident by ridiculing the failure of the federal government to fulfill the ideals of American democracy in its own territory. A deeply embarrassed President John F. Kennedy, who had always displayed more interest in foreign policy than domestic matters, announced his intention to present a comprehensive civil rights bill to the U.S. Congress. This legislation, passed after Kennedy's 1963 murder, is the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination on account of race.

The Birmingham campaign sealed King's reputation as the outstanding moral and political leader of the Civil Rights Movement. His strategy of nonviolence had succeeded dramatically. He had turned civil rights into a national security concern. Although not the first black leader to advocate the philosophy of nonviolence, King was the first to implement it on a mass scale with revolutionary consequences.



Bass, S. Jonathan. Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Oates, Stephen. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1985.

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Letter From a Birmingham Jail