8 min read ⌚
Prisons may have been built to discipline citizens, but when those citizens are justice-loving colossi of humanity, they seem to have the opposite effect.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s case, his prison-time (and an open letter by eight clergymen) resulted in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the monuments of the Civil Rights Movement.
Who Should Read “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? And Why?
In our consumerist society, it seems that fewer and fewer people write things they actually believe in. Martin Luther King Jr. had his skin in the game through it all and paid with his life for his beliefs.
Do this great man some justice and read what he had to say about things which still matter.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is your best place to start.
About Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister and the most famous leader of the Civil Rights Movement for the last decade and a half of his life (1954-1968).
Inspired by Gandhi and his Christian beliefs, King worked out a philosophy of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience which he successfully managed to relay to millions through passionate oratory.
As a consequence, he became one of the prime targets of FBI’s COINTELPRO. He was investigated for possible communist ties, followed extensively and threatened severely on at least one occasion.
That’s why, even today, people don’t believe that James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, acted independently.
In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1986, a U.S. federal holiday was established honoring his name and struggle.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail PDF Summary”
On April 12, 1963, on the ninth day of the Birmingham Campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. was violently arrested and put in the Birmingham Jail.
Needless to add, the police made sure that he is not going to have a nice time there: he was put in a dark cell, in which there was no mattress, and was denied his lawfully guaranteed phone call.
A friend of his managed to smuggle in his cell a newspaper of the day.
In it, King happened upon an open letter titled “A Call for Unity” in which eight white Alabama clergymen condemned the protests “directed and led in part by outsiders” which supposedly made a mockery of the American justice system by taking justice to the streets.
If they had been a little more honest, the signatories of the letter would have probably written MLK instead of “outsiders,” since that’s who they were referring to.
It was time for the outsider to write something.
So, inside the prison, he started writing a response – first on the margins of the newspaper, then on scraps of smuggled writing paper, and finally on a pad once he was allowed one.
And boy did he write something extraordinary!
It’s a letter only six pages long, but rarely have six pages had such an impact. Which is why we advise you to read them in full – right here!
Also, if you like, you can hear it as well:
King begins his letter by pointing out why he is Birmingham.
And it’s simple: because, as he writes, injustice was there. In fact, at the time, Birmingham was one of the most thoroughly segregated cities in the United States, “a hard, brutal, and unbelievable fact” which has resulted in many “unsolved bombings” of Negro homes.
But, that’s not all that there is.
Rephrasing John Donne’s famous “no man is an island” apothegm, King writes one of the most quotable paragraphs in the history of the Civil Rights movement:
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.
So, in other words: he is not an outsider.
And he’s not on the streets of Birmingham because he prefers them to the courts. The latter, unfortunately, don’t care about the Negroes.
So, this is the only way.
And when he says it is the only way, he really means it. Because, he warns, if his nonviolent pleas are rejected, black people will eventually find “solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.”
But, there’s a lot of tension even as it is, the clergymen had said.
Of course, there is, replies King.
That’s the whole point of it.
But, unlike the tension a violent protest may cause, this one’s constructive in that it attempts to tell the government “please, speak to us” as opposed to bringing it down.
The timing is wrong, wrote the clergymen.
But when will be the right time? – asks King.
History has taught us that “wait” almost always means “never.” Even worse, that “wait” is a word only those who haven’t suffered the injustice would even dare of using: “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait,” remarks King.
Demonstrations are illegal, claimed the clergymen.
And what is legal? – King enquiries.
Is it legal for millions of people to be citizens of second order?
Channeling his best Thoreau/Tolstoy/Gandhi, King goes on to explain how nonviolence is the best path toward justice, and how it is a moral obligation of every human to break an unjust law:
I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is, in reality, expressing the highest respect for law.
In other words, it couldn’t be more simple:
If the law is just, you have a responsibility to obey it; if it is unjust, you have a responsibility to break it.
(But, please, don’t take this to meant that you shouldn’t pay all of your taxes… though, it’s something to think about, right?)
The Civil Rights movement is a bit “extreme,” blamed the clergymen.
It is – in the same way that Jesus was extreme, replies King.
In other words: it’s new, it’s original, it’s radical; however, compared to Malcolm X, you have to say that it’s also moderate. Much more moderate than the KKK, so stop inventing excuses, Mr. Dwight Eisenhower!
Black extremists tarnish the reputation of the movement, giving white supremacists unnecessary food for their poorly nourished brains.
And while the latter are obviously bad, white moderates such as the clergymen who authored “you-are-right-but-not-on-the-streets” open letter aren’t good either.
Because, unfortunately, they relativize the Civil Rights Movement.
King has something to say to them in the closing words of his letter:
I wish you had commended the Negro demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer, and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. […]
They will be young high school and college students, young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake.
One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo – Christian heritage.
Key Lessons from “Letter from Birmingham Jail PDF”
1. Just Laws Should Be Obeyed, Unjust Laws Should Be Broken
2. Non-Violent Disobedience is the Best Way to Change the World
3. Sometimes Moderates Are Almost as Bad as Extremists
Just Laws Should Be Obeyed, Unjust Laws Should Be Broken
Martin Luther King was one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Nowadays, it may seem as if a straightforward story – these people fought for some basic human rights – but, at the time, it wasn’t: many claimed that laws are there to be obeyed.
King makes an important distinction: that’s true, he says, but only insofar the laws are just. What if they aren’t?
Then obeying them makes you a lawless person. After all, whipping a black man in the 19th century wouldn’t have been unjust; and the Hungarian Revolution was illegal.
Think about it.
Non-Violent Disobedience is the Best Way to Change the World
King, influenced by Gandhi – who was in turn influenced by Tolstoy who was in turn influenced by Christianity and Thoreau – believed in non-violent resistance, i.e., breaking the unjust laws and accepting the punishments.
And thus, serving as an example.
In any nonviolent campaign,” writes King, “there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.
And he has gone through all of them.
It was time for step 5: success.
Sometimes Moderates Are Almost as Bad as Extremists
Extremist are bad – but they are obviously bad.
Unfortunately, King says, moderates can be even worse – since they are not an obvious threat. In other words, if someone says “blacks do seem to suffer, but they should be waiting for a court’s ruling,” they don’t help a bit – because the courts are actually the biggest problem.
And, in the end, it’s not the point to be “color blind;” the point is to be “color brave.”
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app, for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail Quotes”
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. Click To TweetI must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
In our opinion, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is unjustly eclipsed by the fame of his “I Have a Dream” speech.
As magnificent and poetic as the latter one is, we’ve always preferred the former – due to its more systematic approach and its argumentative fervor.
And we believe that people – wherever they are – should read and reread it as long as humanity exists.
Because one of its main points is that there are no outsiders when it comes to injustice.