Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across
your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise
and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my
work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that
cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for
anything other than such correspondence in the course of the
day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since
I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your
criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your
statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you
have been influenced by the view which argues against
"outsiders coming in." Several months ago the affiliate here in
Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent
direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We
readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our
promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here
because I was invited here. I am here because I have
organizational ties here.
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws
and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are
two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to
advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral
responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral
responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St.
Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though
peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate
violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like
condemning a robbed man because his possession of money
precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning
Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his
philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided
populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like
condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and
never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of
crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts
have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to
cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because
the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the
robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white
moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to
the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a
white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the
colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is
possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken
Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it
has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such
an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the
strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very
flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself
is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.
Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of
racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. So I have
not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I
have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be
channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.
And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I
was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as
I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a
measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an
extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse
you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which
despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Paul an
extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks
of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I
stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John
Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a
butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation
cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson:
"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created
equal . . ." 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?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and
indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If
I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my
having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than
brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that
circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of
you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow
clergyman and a Christian brother. 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.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." Letter to Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Milton L. Grafman, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, The Rev. George H. Murray, The Rev. Edward V. Ramage, The Rev. Earl Stallings. 16 Apr. 1963. Kinginstitute.stanford.edu. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
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