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“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Essay

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Updated: Aug 6th, 2021


On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an open letter to his fellow clergymen, from the Birmingham prison:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. (King par. 11)

This letter was written during the heat of the protest campaign against racial segregation in America. The US has a history of malice and maltreatment towards African-Americans. Before the foundation of the US as an independent state, millions of them were shipped from Africa to be used as slaves in the fields. They were forced to perform hard manual labor and other dirty and tedious tasks that their white masters found beneath them (Smith 5).

Even after the Declaration of Independence and the creation of the Constitution, slaves remained in captivity. It took a long and bloody civil war to change the status of slaves to free citizens. That was the situation in the year 1865. Almost a hundred years since then, true equality was still far from becoming obtainable. The African-Americans were often treated as second-class citizens, especially in the Southern states, which were bitter about the loss in the war, even many generations after. The segregation system was, in many ways, a surrogate replacement for slavery (“Racial Segregation” par. 2).

While King’s views were considered radical at the time, The Letter from the Birmingham Jail was a groundbreaking manifesto, because it gave insight on protests in general, showed King’s struggle for Black Rights, and gave insight into the peaceful protests. In this paper, these points are going to be explored in greater detail.

The Segregation

The fact that the word segregation was used in the second half of the 20th century is astonishing. Yet, for the US, this was a reality, which would have continued being a reality, had it not been for Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters. The segregation was, in general, a form of social control, which the white elites have promoted in order to impose their will on the African-American population. It was a replacement for slavery, which had been abolished after the American Civil War of 1861-1865. Such an unjust divide had reduced the non-white populace to the status of second-class citizens and violated the 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution. (“All Amendments to the United States Constitution” par. 18)

The segregation imposed numerous limits upon the African-American population. The most obvious and important one being the separation in education. The whites and the African-Americans had different schools, and although they paid taxes on the same basis as any other American citizen, their schools received very little to no funding from the state (“Racial Segregation” par. 3). The situation was so desperate that they had to address the church in order to receive any sort of funding. The quality of education in such harsh conditions had plummeted, and the difference in education meant the difference in labor – the high-end jobs being taken by the whites, while the African-Americans being given the low-end, menial tasks (“Racial Segregation” par. 4). Does that sound familiar?

The segregation did not stop at that. Virtually all aspects of public and social life were affected (“Racial Segregation” par. 4). The separation was enforced on all levels, from holding sermons in churches to places at diners to sitting places in buses, to entertainment. Even the cemeteries were promoting segregation, meaning that there was no end to it, even in death. Naturally, the conditions for African-American people were always worse. The attempts to protest these were persecuted by the police, who were also notorious for manhandling them, especially in the Southern states (Smith 5).

The situation was slowly becoming volatile, as the African-Americans did not find justice anywhere. These years are known for spreading of radical and even nationalistic ideas, in response to such maltreatment (“Racial Segregation” par. 8). With the African-American population in the USA exceeding twenty million at the time, there was a great potential for violence, which was starting to erupt in several cities and states. It was at that critical moment when a prominent star has appeared in the political arena. His name was Michael King, who later became known across the world as Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most prominent fighters for civil rights in America (“Racial Segregation” par. 6).

Birmingham, 1963

In 1963, the city of Birmingham was considered a fortress of segregation. The harshness of local governors and local policies towards the African-American people were appalling, even when compared to the rest of the USA of that time. It held the title of the “City of Segregation.” The situation was true, brutal. Despite the number of African-American citizens and white citizens in the city being approximately equal, the former were prevented from holding any kind of important or high-end jobs. They were not allowed to become bus drivers, retailers in the shops, and they were not allowed to hold businesses outside of their neighborhoods.

There was not a single African-American officer within the Birmingham Police Department. The only job that they could find was at a local mill, as maintenance workers or as house servants. Differences between wages were staggering – a white employee received two or three times as much as an African-American employee. Segregation was universally enforced, and any attempt to deviate from it was punished very harshly.

Martin Luther King Jr. came to this city, driven by his cause of fighting segregation anywhere. As he wrote in his famous letter towards the eight pastors of Birmingham city, he could not sit idly by while such injustices were being committed. He had organized a series of non-violent protests against the current regime, including marches, sit-ins, and boycotting. He was arrested, and put into Birmingham prison, on 12 April 1963.

His letter was written as a response to “A Call for Unity” – a statement made in the local newspaper by the eight white clergymen, who have criticized King’s protests and preached solving the issue through public courts (Carpenter et. al. par. 7). The significance of that letter is enormous, as it outlines the reasons for any civil rights protest, as well as a proper way of conducting it.

Justice too Long Delayed is Justice Denied

The eight pastors of the Alabama State, in their “Call for Unity” have admitted that social injustices are indeed present, and have urged patience in dealing with them. They called King out for being divisive, and called the protests to be a useless and pointless gesture. Instead, they urged the fight to be taken from the streets, and into the Courts (Carpenter et. al. par. 7).

King responds to these preachings of patience and peace with words that the negro population has waited for justice too long:

When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, 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. (King par. 12)

However, this line must not be confused for a threat, as the author underlines a bit further in his letter. No, this line is not a threat, but a warning. Martin Luther King Jr., more than anyone else, could feel the underlying tensions, that grew and grew. His demand for justice and his peaceful protests were a temporary solution to a much bigger problem. The man knew that if he did not manage to make changes come true through peaceful action, the change would be brought through violent means. A government that denies peaceful protests is setting itself up for a violent one. Violence was something that King wanted to avoid at all costs (King par. 22).

Mass Protests as a Tool for Change

It has to be noted that Martin Luther King Jr., in his open letter, does not seem too happy about the idea of using mass riots as a means to an end (King par. 8). However, as he regretfully remarks, the negro population has been left with little choice on the matter: “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative” (King par. 5).

The people rarely resort to mass public protests. It is a time-consuming and a potentially dangerous event. There is always a danger of a peaceful protest becoming a violent one due to provocations from within and without. The protesters were in danger of being maimed and beaten by the police. Unfortunately, all other legal means of trying to change the situation on segregation have already been tried.

It took more than 50 years since the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Court decision, which had concluded that segregation does not violate the Constitution, just to overturn it. Seeking justice in courts took far too long. Negotiations with the political and economic representatives of the white population ended with vague promises, which were never fulfilled anyway. Justice long delayed is justice denied.

An Unjust Law is no Law at All

In this part of the letter, King addresses the moral side of the protests and justifies them, and all the people that were taking part in the struggle. Since his opponents in this letter are the eight pastors, he addresses the Bible and the Law of God, in order to fight them on their own turf (King par. 32). Martin Luther King was capable of doing so, due to his deep knowledge of theological concepts, as he himself was a priest, as were his father and grandfather.

He quotes St. Augustine, and says that “An unjust law is no law at all” (King par. 12). He proclaims that opposing the unjust law by breaking it is a responsibility of everyone who consider themselves good Christians, and true to the God’s teachings. He also draws parallels between himself and the Saints, Jesus, and the early Christians, who were, technically, breaching the peace and violating the Law of the Roman Empire, which they perceived as evil and corrupt.

This part also shows King’s personal bravery. Many of the moderate whites, who were not against his cause, or even supportive of it, preached patience out of fear for personal comforts, and out of fear of ending up on the wrong side of the law. They all had something to lose and were afraid. Many of the protestors that came out on the streets of Birmingham had nothing to lose except for their chains. King held a relatively high standing in the society due to being a pastor, but he chose to risk it all, in the name of a just cause. It gave him a higher moral stance, compared to those who chose to accuse him.


The Letter from the Birmingham Jail is a very important historical document. It shows the core motivations behind Martin Luther King’s actions, and the justifications of his deeds. Even though it was written over 50 years ago, the letter’s significance is still great, and many points brought up in it could still be applied to modern reality. The age of segregation in the USA may have ended, but there are still many issues and struggles across the world, which Martin Luther King Jr. would have sympathized with if he were alive.

Works Cited

“All Amendments to the United States Constitution”. Web.

King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Web.

Plessy v. Ferguson. 63 U.S. 537. Supreme Court of the United States. 1986. Supreme Court Collection. Legal Information Inst., Cornell U. Law School, n.d. Web.

Carpenter, Charles, Joseph Durick, Hilton Grafman, Paul Hardin, Nolan Harmon, George Murray, Edward Ramage, Earl Stallings. “Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen”. Web.

“Racial Segregation”, Web.

Smith, Mark. How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses, North Carolina, Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline press, 2008. Print.

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