Rev. King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'

Updated on March 8, 2018

In Alabama, King writes about his defiant, peaceful protests

A 30-foot tall statue dominates the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Civil Rights leader’s image is carved into the "Stone of Hope,” which appears to have split two large boulders representing the “Mountain of Despair."
A 30-foot tall statue dominates the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Civil Rights leader’s image is carved into the "Stone of Hope,” which appears to have split two large boulders representing the “Mountain of Despair." | Source

Fifty years ago bigotry ran rampant in Birmingham, as it did throughout the Deep South.

The brutality directed at non-violent protestors in that Alabama city the summer of 1963 was so offensive a national outcry resulted in change and ultimately the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

Americans were shocked as they watched their TVs and witnessed the pain suffered by African Americans on the streets of Birmingham: the vicious attack dogs, the high-pressure fire hoses, the beatings and the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of a church that killed four young black girls, injured 20 other worshipers and left many in Birmingham and beyond brokenhearted.

It was here, several months before the March on Washington, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” encouraging participants of the Civil Rights Movement to defiantly, but peacefully, protest the South's unjust laws.

There were 250,000 protestors who participated in the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington and sat around the Lincoln Memorial Reflective Poll listening to King’s stirring and eloquent “I Have a Dream” speech. Many more have watched TV replays or read and analyzed his momentous speech.

How many have read King’s letter, which spelled out his protest philosophy? Or even are aware of it?

In 1963, Birmingham was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. King believed Birmingham was the worst racially divided city in U.S. He and other Civil Rights leaders organized two weeks of daily demonstrations in Birmingham protesting the racist treatment of African Americans, much of which he discussed in his letter.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights…,” he wrote. “We still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ ”

King argued that he and other African Americans couldn’t sit idly by after witnessing “vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…”

A racist sign in the South is on display at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
A racist sign in the South is on display at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. | Source

In April 1963, the first of the series of protest marches was announced to take place in Birmingham. On the eve of the event, a Birmingham judge issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." The Civil Right leaders disobeyed what they felt was an illegal ruling and went ahead with their non-violent march.

On April 12, 1963, King and others wore work clothes in solidarity with the average man and marched down Birmingham’s streets only to be stopped by police. Authorities roughed up King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other protestors and arrested them.

While in the Birmingham Jail, King wrote the beginnings of his non-violent manifesto known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or “Letter from City Jail.” King’s letter urged Americans to nonviolently resist racism because people have “a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.”

The letter, which is dated April 16, 1963, was actually completed over a longer period than a day. King started writing his manifesto on the margins of a newspaper in response to an appeal made by several Birmingham clergymen, who asked the Civil Rights leaders to move their protests from the streets into the courts.

King’s 6,900-word letter begins with a list of intolerances he and African Americans experienced 50 years ago. Segregation forced him to use a restroom marked “Colored” and he repeatedly slept in his car because hotels barred him.

“When your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.;’ when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro... forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ — then you will… understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

King then answered the clergymen’s concern about the protestors' willingness to break some laws and obey others. He said there are just and unjust laws. He supported the former, but challenged the latter.

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all… Any law that uplifts human personality is just,’ ” King continued. “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

The Civil Rights leader argued that Alabama’s segregation laws enacted by its legislators are unjust because the officials were not democratically elected. “Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?” King maintained.

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ “

“If you were black in Birmingham in 1963, there was no escaping the violence and no place to hide.

"What I remember most from this time is the sound of bombs going off in neighborhoods, including our own. The white ‘night riders’ and the KKK… terrified any black family they could.”

– Birmingham native and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her memoir Extraordinary, Ordinary People.

Returning to the theme of urgency King wrote, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro…

“The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.”

As he concluded, King chided the clerics. “I wish you had commended the… demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.

"One day the South will recognize its real heroes," King predicted. "They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses…"

King then wrote about individuals “courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake. 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 what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

A city not afraid to look back

Birmingham has decided to face its ugly past and this year is observing the 50th anniversary of that pivotal year, which was a catalyst for change in the U. S.

In the decades following 1963 a tremendous social transformation occurred. In the past 50 years, Birmingham has elected four black mayors, appointed three black police chiefs and installed seven black school superintendents.

The turmoil of half a century ago is on display in Birmingham as it focuses on the lessons learned from its past. Various institutions are telling the stories of 1963 through art exhibits, theater productions, musical performances and more.

Visitors may want to walk along the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which passes a variety of major Civil Rights era sites in the city. The path is punctuated with large interpretive signs many featuring historical photographs taken at the sites.

The trail starts in Kelly Ingram Park, which has many historic sculptures. It’s also near the 16th Street Baptist Church, which served as a staging ground for Civil Rights demonstrations in the 60s and was bombed in 1963 killing four girls in Sunday School.

President John Kennedy was among a vast number of Americans who were outraged by the brutality directed at African Americans in Birmingham and he sent Congress a sweeping piece of legislation that outlawed various kinds of discrimination in the U. S. Following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson rallied the Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From 1955 until his assassination in 1968, when King led the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans achieved more racial equality than had been produced in the U.S. during the previous 350 years. These accomplishments are now taught in America’s classrooms to children of all races.

While King’s non-violent protests were ultimately successful in legally ending segregation in the South and major social improvements were made in Birmingham and other municipalities, the racial issues that divided the nation and sparked a Civil War 150 years ago still plague this country. Look no further than the inner cities today and the recent Trevon Martin shooting in Florida.

Americans must consider, as King argued in a 1965 speech, we are in this together and we all need to pull together to continue to make improvements:

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

– Dr. King • Oberlin College Commencement Address • June 1965

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Thomas Dowling


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      • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

        Thomas Dowling 

        6 years ago from Florida

        Amen, RonElFran and DzyMsLizzy! (Are you two posting comments in tandem? You both also commented on my death of Windows XP Hub.


      • DzyMsLizzy profile image

        Liz Elias 

        6 years ago from Oakley, CA

        Most interesting reflection on a shameful time in our history. Much progress has been made, but sadly, still not enough. Until the day when not a single soul is judged merely on the color of his skin, we shall all remain in the bondage of injustice.

        Voted up, interesting, useful, awesome and shared.

      • RonElFran profile image

        Ronald E Franklin 

        6 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        In my opinion "Letter from Birmingham Jail," along with the history behind it, should be required reading for students today. I say for students only because there's no way to get everybody else to read it, but they should! As one who grew up in the South in that era, reading Dr. King's letter, even today, has had a powerful impact. Thanks for highlighting it once again.

      • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

        Thomas Dowling 

        6 years ago from Florida

        Thanks rose-the planner and johnjoni.

      • profile image


        6 years ago

        great work

      • rose-the planner profile image

        rose-the planner 

        6 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

        Congratulations on HOTD, well deserved! Great article about a great man and the struggles! Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

      • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

        Thomas Dowling 

        6 years ago from Florida

        Thanks for the nice words Thelma Alberts, techygran and ComfortB. I thought posting this around the time of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington would supplement the stories focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Right Movement.

      • ComfortB profile image

        Comfort Babatola 

        6 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

        A great read indeed about the struggles of a people who refused to be silenced. And of a great man, Dr. Martin Luther King, who knew something had to be done, and said, in my words, 'why not me'.

        Thanks for the write, and congrats on the HOTD award.

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia Zirkwitz 

        6 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        Nice eloquent little hub that manages to fill in a lot of gaps that needed to be filled in. Thank you!

      • Thelma Alberts profile image

        Thelma Alberts 

        6 years ago from Germany and Philippines

        Congrats on the HOTD! This is a great information about what happened at that time. Well done!

      • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

        Thomas Dowling 

        6 years ago from Florida

        Thanks for the nice words thumbi7, Kristine Manley and AR Media.

      • AR Media profile image

        Aunice Yvonne Reed 

        6 years ago from Southern California

        Awesome hub! Great Job! Voted up:)

      • Kristine Manley profile image

        Donna Kristine 

        6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

        Thank you for writing this Hub. It's good to remember from whence we came and the struggles endured. I am Black and thank God for individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King and other non-blacks and blacks who stood with him so that ALL may have a chance in the pursuit of God-given rights and happiness.

      • thumbi7 profile image

        JR Krishna 

        6 years ago from India

        Interesting hub.

        The name "Martin Luther King" is familiar. But I didn't much details of the history

        Voted up

      • profile image

        Jon Von Karolovsky 

        6 years ago from Kiev 2022

        One of the things I loved about this letter is the scripture woven into and throughout it all. King never noted scripture and verse, or said, "Apostle Paul said" or even "scripture tells us." King just put the truth of God's word into modern context.

        I read this in college. I noted the scriptural references to the professor. She didn't like that one bit. Nobody had ever hinted to her that Reverend King was writing through the thoughts of an Almighty God.

      • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

        Thomas Dowling 

        6 years ago from Florida

        Thanks HSchneider.

        The brutality the Birmingham's police force inflicted on the non-violent protesters was startling to my teenage eyes and sensibilities. 1963 was a watershed period for the Civil Right Movement and my understanding of it and respect for Dr. King and others. How could it be that the color of my skin granted me full rights as an American at my birth, while African Americans suffered greatly over centuries in pursuit of their unalienable rights of life, liberty and happiness?

      • profile image

        Howard Schneider 

        6 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

        Wonderful Hub, TDowling. Dr. King was a great man and his letter was a civil rights and civil disobedience manifesto. Thank you for writing and highlighting it. His words and actions are inspirational. They are also an extension of what Gandhi did in India.

      • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

        Thomas Dowling 

        6 years ago from Florida

        IslandBites & Vivian-tmt-hnp:

        Thanks for your nice comments.

        You both might be interested in a special webpage setup by USA Today. It features stories about five people who were present at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. (I think Hubpages prevents you from including urls in these posts, so to get around that I’m substituting # where the periods should be. The # appears three times in the following link.) The link is: usatoday30#usatoday#com/news/nation/martin-luther-king-dream-speech/index#html

      • Vivian-tmt-hnp profile image


        6 years ago from USA.

        8:53am Friday 16 August 2013

        Dear Mr. TDowling,

        Great hub. Thank for sharing your wealth of knowledge.


      • IslandBites profile image


        6 years ago from Puerto Rico

        Really interesting hub!


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