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The Language of Leadership: Letter From Birhmingham Jail
(Video Reinaction by UT Austin)

Letter From Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King's Letter From The Birmingham City Jail (aka "The Negro Is Your Brother.")

Summary

Written in April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” delivered an important statement on civil rights and civil disobedience. The 1963 racial crisis in Birmingham, Alabama, was a critical turning point in the struggle for African American civil rights. Although King's letter was not published until after the Birmingham crisis was resolved, it is widely regarded as the most important written document of the modern civil rights movement and a classic text on civil disobedience.

Important Themes and Quotes

In this letter he outlines twelve of his most important concepts, and he summarizes each of them in a few well-chosen words.

1. THE INTER-CONNECTION OF ALL PEOPLE

"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."

2. A GENERAL METHOD OF ACTION FOR NONVIOLENT SOCIAL CHANGE

"In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: (1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; (2) Negotiation; (3) Self-purification; and (4) Direct action."

3. THE CREATIVE TENSION OF DIRECT ACTION

"...there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth."

"Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with."

" . . . the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."

4. THE RIGHT TIME TO DO GOOD

"We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right." "Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed . . ."

5. THE GRANTING OF FREEDOM

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

6. THE PURPOSE OF LAW AND ORDER

" . . . law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress."

7. JUST AND UNJUST LAWS

" . . . there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that 'An unjust law is no law at all.' "

8. SOMETIMES WAITING MAKES THINGS WORSE

"It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills."

"We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work 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."

9. MODERATION AND LUKEWARM ACCEPTANCE

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

10. EXTREMISM FOR LOVE

"Was not Jesus an extremist in love? 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice -- 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ -- 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.' Was not Martin Luther an extremist -- 'Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.' Was not John Bunyan an extremist -- 'I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.' Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist -- 'This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.' Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist -- 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'

So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice -- or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

11. ACTS WHICH MAY PRECIPITATE VIOLENCE

"We must come to see, as federal courts have consistently affirmed, that it is immoral to urge an individual to withdraw his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest precipitates violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber."

12. THE HEROISM OF NONVIOLENCE

"One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

Commentary

Letter From the Birmingham City Jail is one of Dr. King's most inspired and powerful works. While less famous than his I Have a Dream Speech, it is a masterful work on the U.S. civil rights movement and a seminal reference in the struggle of oppressed peoples against tyrants everywhere.

Stephen Fought, professor emeritus and former Dean of Academics at the Air War College writes:

It is therefore appropriate to ask whether anyone who enjoys freedom in America today can take comfort in considering themselves "an outsider" to peoples fighting for their freedoms elsewhere in the world — and to wrestle with the consequences of that conclusion.

Here is a wonderful introduction introduction (below) to Rev. Martin Luther King's "Letter From The Birmingham City Jail" was written by Colin W. Bell, Executive Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee in May, 1963, and was published along with the the complete original text of the King letter, without copyright notice, with the approval of its author.

"The letter speaks powerfully of one of the great freedoms --freedom from racial discrimination -- which is rooted in our religiousfaith and which our nation has stood for in principle but has not yetestablished in practice. It is an eloquent expression of the nonviolentapproach to the restructuring of our social order."- Colin W. Bell

Essays

Copyright Status

Is the Letter From the Birmingham City Jail copyrighted or public domain?

Rev. Bill McGinnis, Director of LoveAllPeople.org makes the claim that because a first version of the "Letter From The Birmingham City Jail" published on May 1, 1963 without copyright notice by the American Friends Service Committee that as an open letter released to the public without copyright that it was by default, placed in the public domain. Therefore, when in April 1963, when Dr. King revised and published it with copyright notice, that copyright does not apply to any of the first-version text which had already entered into the Public Domain, only those parts which were new to the second version. The second version shows a date of "April 16, 1963," in the text, but that is the date of the handwritten original Public Domain first version, not the date of the copyrighted second version.

It is fairly clear that a work entered into the Public Domain cannot be later copyrighted (see http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/law_librarian_blog/2009/09/if-you-put-something-into-the-public-domain-can-you-later-take-it-out.html and http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20090212/1238593748.shtml) However, it is not clear if his releasing the letter to the public in this manner did or did not place it in the public domain. Recent laws have made it such that nearly anything you write is automatically copyrigthed, but that law was not there in the 1960s.

Users on Wikipedia have not come to agreement on the matter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Letter_from_Birmingham_Jail#Letter_not_PD

 

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