Study Guide

Letter from Birmingham Jail Quotes

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Courage

    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. N****es have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of N**** homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. (6)

    In order to be courageous, you need to have something to be courageous against. In Dr. King's and his followers' case, it was actual terrorism and physical brutality. It was this horrible reality that elevated their movement to spiritual power and historical proportions. Notice how he backs up his assertion with facts and lays down that they're facts so don't try to argue with them.

    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?" (7)

    The demonstrators were very deliberately told what to expect from the police and from white supremacist citizens, though they probably knew from newspaper articles and general gossip and word-of-mouth what might be waiting for them in their picket lines and at the lunch counters. At the very least, they had to be ready to spend a night or two in the plush accommodations at the local jail—and, we hope, not in the local hospital's Emergency Room or morgue, which is where too many of them ended up over the years.

    But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; […] when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; […] when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "n*****," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a N****, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. (12)

    Sometimes courage comes precisely from the bad treatment an individual or community has endured. When your life is filled with fear and despair, taking courage and action to change that life seems to be the only choice vs. just keeping your head down to survive.

    Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. (17)

    King cites examples of courage he knows these clergymen were totally familiar with. In both examples, the courageous people are facing certain death. As people faithful in a God that would save their souls, they felt that sacrificing their lives for what they felt was right was A-OK. Dr. King often talked in a similar way about the death that was always around the corner for him. The end of his "Mountaintop" speech deals with this idea directly. That was the last speech he ever gave.

    When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows. (27)

    The sad truth is that people often aren't courageous on other peoples' or communities' behalf. Many white moderates in the South knew how bad life was for Black citizens, but were too scared to fight for change. The Temple bombing in Atlanta in 1958 (remember it in Driving Miss Daisy?) was likely a direct response to its rabbi's support for desegregation.

  • Perseverance

    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. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity. (21)

    Since we're all the beneficiaries of the struggles and movements of the past, it can be easy to take progress for granted. We'd also like to pretend that most of the problems in our country and the world have been solved so we can get back to work on our Netflix queue.

    Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American N****. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. (24)

    There's something about living creatures of all kinds that constantly seeks freedom. You could say that life is what perseveres (you can quote us, but you heard it here first!).

    I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some—such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty n*****-lovers." (25)

    It occurs to Shmoop that part of the reason real justice needs such dogged perseverance is because "still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out," and that we could make shorter work of it if more people got involved. Then we could get back to the hard work of plowing through our Netflix queue, like we mentioned before.

    Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. (32)

    There's no mascot for perseverance like the followers of a brand-new religion in a hostile world, that's for sure. And when you take the early Christians' example seriously, what couldn't you set out to do? King hoped this argument would resonate with the eight clergymen who wrote the letter. For King and his followers, their faith was a big part what kept them going.

  • Religion

    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. (3)

    Right away, Dr. King knocks away one of the main criticisms the eight clergymen made, which was that he and the SCLC were "outsiders" who didn't have a place in the Birmingham conflict. He's using his critics' own beliefs to make his argument against theirs.

    Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong. (13)

    Next up is the argument that protestors should be following the laws. Nope, Dr. King says, because segregation and its supporting laws and ordinances are immoral and sinful. What else you got, eight clergymen?

    Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. (17)

    Refusing to obey unjust laws is an ancient tradition in Judaism and Christianity. Being persecuted also happens to be an ancient tradition, so Dr. King rightly felt he had thousands of years of moral precedent standing behind him. He cited examples he knew his critics couldn't dismiss.

    So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. (24)

    Dr. King loved turning his critics' arguments against them, especially when he could use Christian teachings and history. Calling attention to Jesus' extremism in favor of love and compassion basically renders the idea that Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were radical and extreme completely useless. "Yes, we're extremists. Now, what was your point?"

    But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. 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. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. (33)

    Dr. King had a lot of choice words for the Church as a whole. But they were words intended to call the Church back to its roots, to strengthen it, and to help it survive and remain relevant in an increasingly secular age.

  • Injustice

    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. (4)

    This is one of Dr. King's greatest quotes and ideas. He envisioned a world of universal brother/sisterhood, where all of humanity faced its challenges and pooled its resources together. And in his spiritual understanding, all humans are connected in some way. He often remarked that in the atomic age, war anywhere is a threat to the survival of the whole species.

    We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million N**** brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "n*****," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a N****, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. (12)

    This is basically a list of all the kinds of injustice anyone could ever come up with. He alludes to slavery in the first sentence, then goes on to reference segregation, lynchings, verbal abuse, poverty, the marginalization of children, and being made to feel less than human. Reading that list, we understand why it's difficult to wait.

    Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent N****es from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though N****es constitute a majority of the population, not a single N**** is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured? (14)

    Dr. King gets pretty professorial here. But even if you don't get the subtle point he makes at first, he takes on the issue from several angles, ending with the point that that Black citizens weren't allowed to vote on the very laws that discriminated against them. This, to him, was the ultimate corruption of America's claim to justice and representation of its citizens.

    We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws. (18)

    Dr. King makes examples out of America's great historical enemies: Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. They had laws and followed them, but it's clear to us that those laws were unjust. Sometimes as a nation you've got to look in the mirror…

    It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. (35)

    At this point in the letter, it's abundantly obvious that Dr. King doesn't care about laws in and of themselves. If they're wrong, it's wrong to support and follow them. Just because you have a piece of paper saying what you're doing is legal, it doesn't mean what you're doing is right.

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