On Good Friday in 1963, 53 blacks, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., marched into downtown Birmingham to protest the existing segregation laws. All were arrested. This caused the clergymen of this Southern town to compose a letter appealing to the black population to stop their demonstrations. This letter appeared in the Birmingham Newspaper. In response, Martin Luther King drafted a document that would mark the turning point of the Civil Rights movement and provide enduring inspiration to the struggle for racial equality.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” strives to justify the desperate need for nonviolent direct action, the absolute immorality of unjust laws together with what a just law is, as well as, the increasing probability of the “Negro” resorting to extreme disorder and bloodshed, in addition to his utter disappointment with the Church who, in his opinion, had
not lived up to their responsibilities as people of God.
King’s justification to the eight clergymen for protesting segregation begins with a profound explanation of their actions, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis
and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue”. The actions of the African American people are overdue and very well planned as King had explained in the letter. Their quest was to force the white politicians to negotiate and actually heed the requests for desegregation. As King explains, “past promises have been broken by the politicians and merchants of Birmingham and now is the time to fulfill the natural right of all people to be treated equal”. Violence is not what King wants, he simply wants unjust laws to change and the Supreme Courts 1954 ruling to be upheld.
Secondly, King’s answer to the clergymen’s assertion that breaking the law is not the way to achieve the results the African American is looking for. “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”. King does not feel that they have broken the law, his definitive answer to the clergymen is that a law that is not morally sound is not a law. Laws are made to protect the people not degrade and punish. As far as King is concerned, the African American will continue to do whatever is necessary, preferably non-violently, to obtain the legal and moral right that is theirs. If they are not allowed this peaceful expression of the needs they so desire, it could lead to a much uglier action.
Dr. King expressed his concern that if something is not done with these feelings and
absolute needs of the African American there will be violence and mayhem. “The Negro has
many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him
March”. History has shown that if a person or people are ignored they will become violent and fight for their “God-given” rights. King diligently explained that “black nationalist” groups are becoming prevalent in society and he has faith that the “Negro Church” has had direct influence in keeping the violence from erupting. However, how can they are expected to stay complacent?
Finally, the sheer frustration King felt was with the Church in general. “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. There can be no deep disappointment where there in not deep love”. This is probably the most heartbreaking assertion King makes. He feels that the Church has skirted its responsibilities to the African American people, hiding behind “anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows”.
King summarizes his letter by making the point that he hopes that the Church will see it’s responsibilities “it’s” means it is/you need its as people of God and understand the need for direct action, the justification of unjust laws and the impending danger of the African American rising up in violence if they are not heard. Martin Luther King does this all in a diplomatic, heartfelt and completely inoffensive voice.