Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Front Cover
Harper San Francisco, 1994 - African Americans - 35 pages
4 Reviews
Martin Luther King, Jr. rarely had time to answer his critics. But on April 16, 1963, he was confined to the Birmingham jail, serving a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations. "Alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell", King pondered a letter that fellow clergymen had published urging him to drop his campaign of nonviolent resistance and to leave the battle for racial equality to the courts. In response, King drafted his most extensive and forceful written statement against social injustice - a remarkable essay that focused the world's attention on Birmingham and spurred the famous March on Washington. Bristling with the energy and resonance of his great speeches, Letter from the Birmingham Jail is both a compelling defense of nonviolent demonstration and a rallying cry for an end to social discrimination that is just as powerful today as it was more than twenty years ago.

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One only need to take out references to segregation to realize that too many things remain the same. With the single exception to segregation, and especially when it comes to law enforcement and the justice system, this letter is as relevant today as it was in 1963. That is not ok. We can and must do better.
In Letter from Birmingham Jail, MLK lays out the problem of inequality in a beautiful, powerful, and extremely clear open letter. He reminds the reader that injustice anywhere in a threat to injustice everywhere. In very direct language, he describes how poorly black citizens are treated in Birmingham courts and is not at all ambiguous in stating that the Negro had no other option but to revolt. It is amazing to hear, in his own words, how he collaborated with others to see if they might be able to construct a non-violent revolt that would cause enough "tension" and "crisis" to force society to change what it would not otherwise change. He questioned, with those who helped him construct a movement, if they could "take it." Could they take being jailed and still not react in a violent way? Could they achieve equality by enduring even worse treatment than they have already suffered? Would it make a real change? It is hard to imagine anyone reading this pre-civil rights letter and not being extremely moved.
MLK clearly defines just and unjust laws. Just laws are those laws that the minorities are forced to follow only when the majority follow them as well. This includes *application of the law*. If laws are disproportionately enforced on minorities, according to MLK, they are unjust. MLK makes no secret of his disdain for the white moderate who refuses to engage in extremist direct action. After all, according to MLK, any worthwhile change realized throughout history was the result of extremists like Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, etc. He is proud to be considered an extremist and uses his extremism to engage in direct but non-violent action to affect social change.

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The letter from a Birmingham jail cell is a masterpiece! Written by the most amazing master of our time. I studied this piece in college (Portland State University) and I still am affected by it. I read it every year on Martin Luther King's jr's birthday. He knew what he wanted and never relented until he got it. 

About the author (1994)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 into a middle-class black family in Atlanta, Georgia. He received a degree from Morehouse College. While there his early concerns for social justice for African Americans were deepened by reading Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience." He enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary and there became acquainted with the Social Gospel movement and the works of its chief spokesman, Walter Rauschenbusch. Mohandas Gandhi's practice of nonviolent resistance (ahimsaahimsa) later became a tactic for transforming love into social change. After seminary, he postponed his ministry vocation by first earning a doctorate at Boston University School of Theology. There he discovered the works of Reinhold Niebuhr and was especially struck by Niebuhr's insistence that the powerless must somehow gain power if they are to achieve what is theirs by right. In the Montgomery bus boycott, it was by economic clout that African Americans broke down the walls separating the races, for without African American riders, the city's transportation system nearly collapsed. The bus boycott took place in 1954, the year King and his bride, Coretta Scott, went to Montgomery, where he had been called to serve as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Following the boycott, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate civil rights organizations. Working through African American churches, activists led demonstrations all over the South and drew attention, through television and newspaper reports, to the fact that nonviolent demonstrations by blacks were being suppressed violently by white police and state troopers. The federal government was finally forced to intervene and pass legislation protecting the right of African Americans to vote and desegregating public accommodations. For his nonviolent activism, King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. While organizing a "poor people's campaign" to persuade Congress to take action against poverty, King accepted an invitation to visit Memphis, Tennessee, where sanitation workers were on strike. There, on April 4, 1968, he was gunned down while standing on the balcony of his hotel.

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