Study Guide

Letter from Birmingham Jail

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

Letter from Birmingham Jail Introduction

If you haven't spent your entire school career watching baby goat videos on your phone, you've heard the name Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by now. You're probably grateful that you get a day off from school in his honor. But though it might be hard to believe, that isn't his greatest legacy. What could be greater than a weekday off, you ask? Oh, you know, furthering the causes of equality, brother/sisterhood, universal love and compassion, social justice, and true democracy.

Okay, at least it's on par with the day off.

Even though segregation was found to be unconstitutional in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, it was a way of life in the South well through the early 1960s. White and Black Americans were separated as much as the racists in charge could manage, and there were whites-only hotels, restaurants, and bathrooms that were off-limits for African Americans. In thousands of communities, Blacks were denied the right to vote, the right to an adequate education, and basic economic opportunity by local governments, corporate institutions, and a general culture of hate.

And segregation wasn't just the local law. It was enforced through violence and intimidation. Black homes and churches were bombed by white supremacists, the KKK and White Citizens' Councils had a strong public presence, and racial slurs and vigilante murders were commonplace in public life.

Overall verdict: just plain bad.

Birmingham, Alabama was one of the worst places in America to be a Black American, so the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Dr. King's crew, the SCLC) decided to go there to demonstrate against the segregation laws. They did, and according to plan, many people were arrested.

  

Dr. King, one of the heroes of this story, was among them.

While he was resting in the cozy confines of the Birmingham City Jail on the charge of "parading without a permit," he had the pleasure of reading a statement in the local paper written by some white clergymen. It said Blacks should just put up with their miserable situation until everything was "resolved" in the racist local courts. After all, isn't that what Jesus would do?

Here's a hint: no.

The clergymen called MLK an "outsider" (from the distant land of Atlanta) and portrayed him and the rest of the activists as a bunch of rabble-rousers. As if that wasn't enough, they commended the police for being so reasonable and gentle with the protestors (they might have had a point if the Birmingham police used Corgis instead of German shepherds). Stay out of the streets, Black people, they said. Be patient.

Some of this might sound familiar…

Well, there was a lot of this kind of talk going around back then. Dr. King and his colleagues didn't usually pay much attention to it, but as you can imagine, MLK suddenly found himself with a lot of free time because jail. And that's how "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was born. It arguably marks the turning point of both his career and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

It's clear, direct, and full of profound, inspirational wisdom that you could easily quote if you wanted to look smart.

  • "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
  • "…it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends."
  • "…it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends"
  • "Stop being racist, people."

Actually, he might not have said that last one.

P.S. Heard this letter called something other than "Letter from Birmingham Jail?" Scoot on down to "What's Up with the Title?" to learn more. Meanwhile, put down those baby goat videos for a few minutes—Dr. King has something he wants to tell you.

What is Letter from Birmingham Jail About and Why Should I Care?

Waaaay back in ancient America (1963), before we lived in today's utopia of perfect racial harmony, there used to be a thing called racism. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act took care of all that.

Yeah…no. It didn't.

It's not often that a text is almost word-for-word completely relevant fifty years later. It's tough to write something like that. You never know when the next iPhone or Snapchat or ectoplasmic fusion-powered retrocannon is gonna come around and revolutionize everything. MLK probably hoped that his strategy of non-violent civil disobedience wouldn't be needed anymore by now because his dream that everyone would just love each other already would be a reality.

Unfortunately, everyone doesn't love each other, so we still need his letter. Hate groups still flourish, employment discrimination is still alive and well, and it took until 2014 for Wilcox County High School in Georgia to hold a racially integrated prom.

And that's just for starters.

One reason we study history is to benefit from the world's greatest minds. Well, Dr. King was an intellectual powerhouse. In the philosopher's boxing ring he was heavyweight champion of world. He was as electrifying a 20th-century leader as his old namesake Martin Luther was in the 16th. His genius wasn't universally appreciated while he was alive, but nowadays most everybody tears up a little when they hear his "Mountaintop" speech or his "I Have a Dream" speech (anyone who doesn't is probably a top-secret android prototype).

Even white supremacists cry when they hear him speak…although for different reasons.

Dr. King got arrested for protesting segregation and white supremacy many times all over the South. And he wasn't doing it to Yelp different police department holding cells. He was purposely breaking the law to change the law. He was working to overturn racist laws that dictated where Black Americans could and could not sit down, or drink water, or use the bathroom—laws that enabled racists to run the South as if only white people were real legitimate human beings with feelings and hopes and dreams.

He felt the best way to confront the ignorance of racism was to disobey its silliest laws and ordinances, get a bunch of people arrested, make national headlines, get TV cameras to take a good long look at the protests, and to win a long-term public relations campaign against the local government officials and community leaders. It was a strategy that could only work if he had the truth on his side.

And he did, which was convenient.

Dr. King was one of many courageous Americans who led the movement against the soul-crushing reality of legalized racism. He was a preacher, not a politician, and that's where his power came from. He was a devout Christian who tried to live up to his understanding of teachings of Jesus. Religious or not, you've probably heard the spiel by now: love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, don't double-dip.

Today, you'd be shocked to see a "Whites Only" water fountain, or a movie theater or hotel where African Americans weren't allowed in. That's in part because of the man writing that letter in Birmingham Jail, who pleaded his case before millions of Americans and wasn't afraid to get arrested for a cause he knew was just.

Sadly, we don't get to behold the glory that would have been MLK's Twitter feed, so we'll just have to settle for the next best thing, which is everything he ever wrote.

Letter from Birmingham Jail Resources

Websites

The King Institute at Stanford University
This is one of the most comprehensive resources on MLK out there.

MLK Online
Another good resource, though it's not as slick as Stanford's site.

The King Encyclopedia
An easy-to-use reference for studying Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, made by the King Institute at Stanford University.

Movie or TV Productions

Selma
This 2014 movie dramatizes the March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Eyes on the Prize
A fourteen-hour television documentary series from PBS that chronicles the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1985. It's worth every hour.

Driving Miss Daisy
This 1989 Best-Picture winner dramatized exactly what MLK was talking about when he expressed disappointment with "moderate" whites. Miss Daisy's an elderly lady who supports civil rights in theory and even goes to hear Dr. King speak when he comes to Atlanta. But she won't give her African American chauffeur and friend her extra ticket to the speech because she doesn't want to be seen sitting with him.

Articles and Interviews

Interview with Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who interviewed Dr. King in 1964.

Interview on Meet the Press
In 1960, Dr. King appeared on NBC's Meet the Press. Too bad Terry Gross was too young to get the opportunity to interview him. That would've been awesome.

Video

I Have a Dream Speech
You've heard about it a million times. Now you can watch it a million times. Thanks, YouTube.

Our Friend, Martin
"Our Friend, Martin" is a sometimes cheesy (okay, it's cheesy to the max) animated movie about a group of time travelling school kids who learn about the life and times of Dr. King.

Interview on the Merv Griffin Show
In 1967, Dr. King made an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show. It was a way to get the message out, we guess.

Audio

"I've Been to the Mountaintop"
This was Dr. King's last speech, in which he seemed to predicted his own death the next day.

"Beyond Vietnam"
One year before his death, Dr. King gave this major speech in opposition to the Vietnam War.

Images

Turn to the Right, Please.
Here's the mug shot of MLK prior to his being sent to the Birmingham Jail.

Dr. King
One of the classic portraits of Dr. King.

Dr. King at the March on Washington
Dr. King waving to the crowd at the Washington Memorial.

Various Document Scans
Stanford's King Institute has an archive of all sorts of documents, including Dr. King's speech notes. Marvel at the ancient communication device known as the telegram. Admire Dr. King's atrocious handwriting. Ooooh… aaaahhh…

Aftermath of Bombing near the Gaston Motel
As just one example of the kinds of attacks Dr. King and his colleagues were faced with, this is a picture of the effects of a bombing of a building near where Dr. King was staying.

Bull Connor's Canine Officers
Here's a lovely photo of some of the terror Connor's policies unleashed on the Black citizens of Birmingham.

RIP, MLK
The sadly famous photo of King's assassination in 1968, with is stunned friends pointing in the direction of the shots.