January 15, 2007


Letter From Birmingham City Jail (Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963)

My Dear Fellow Clergymen,

While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas...But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of "outsiders coming in." I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some 85 affiliate organizations all across the South...Several months ago our local affiliate here in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented.

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. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham...Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of the country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts. On the basis of these conditions Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then came the opportunity last September to talk with some of the leaders of the economic community. In these negotiating sessions certain promises were made by the merchants -- such as the promise to remove the humiliating racial signs from the stores. On the basis of these promises Reverend Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to call a moratorium on any type of demonstrations. As the weeks and months unfolded we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. The signs remained. As in so many experiences in the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community. We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through the process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, "are you able to accept the blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?"

You may well ask, "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed," according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing Thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen 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, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking in agonizing pathos: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?" when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" men and "colored" when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title of "Mrs." when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and 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. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens' "Councilor" or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direst action" who paternistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." 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.

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and at points they profit from segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man in an incurable "devil."

The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, "Get rid of your discontent." But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.

In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership in the community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, "Those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern," and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

M. L. King, Jr.

[originally posted: 1/16/06

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 15, 2007 12:00 PM

The non-violence didn't last too long. Neither did the "Christian Brotherhood". Who can honestly say that the gains made by Black America because of MLK outweigh the harm done to the country and the people, black Christians in particular?

Posted by: NC3 at January 11, 2005 7:50 AM

It was switching to economic redistribution, integrating neighborhoods and Vietnam that killed them--that and the riots.

Posted by: oj at January 11, 2005 8:43 AM

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroís great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizensí "Councilor" or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice . . .

Anyone besides me seeing the parallel to the "realist" school of foreign policy, and to the Mario Cuomo "I'm personally opposed, but" position on abortion.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 16, 2006 9:06 AM

It's the poverty pimps of all hues who are the stumbling blocks to our black citizens entry into the middle class. These blood-suckers need a permanent underclass to fund their extravagant life styles.

Posted by: erp at January 16, 2006 9:25 AM

What gains? If I had to choose between being a slave in early America, and being a resident in a typical HUD housing project, I would pick the slavery. At least there was some dignity in being a slave.

Who killed them? Strange phrase, but I'll go with it and say modern liberalism killed them. Blacks in public housing projects are money and power for people who get to pretend they care. From Ted Kennedy all the way down to the maintenance man at your local housing authority, people profit in a number of ways from the current welfare state typified by "projects" in particular, and social welfare programs in general. Ditto public schools, they are substandard, failed institutions because people make money from them being that way, simple as that. Itís called a status quo.

MLK was the excuse to transition to this current status quo by a new power structure controlled by our government who duly set up a very profitable business making money off a new class of people called the "poor and disadvantaged"

Predictably, the class has grown tremendously to include whites, browns as well as more blacks then ever before. Itís all good business if youíre in the government.

Martin Luther King would be disgusted if he new the nightmare his dream has become.


Posted by: Perry at January 16, 2006 9:28 AM

sorry, new = knew last sentence

Posted by: Perry at January 16, 2006 9:30 AM

We all thank you for reprinting this letter.

One of the points raised by Martin Luther King merits our attention today. King courageously points out that some of the Negro middle class profit by segregation. Those villains, parasitical upon separation, are the ones pushing phoney holidays, fictitious languages, and fantastical archeology to estrange people of African and partial African descent from the rest of the Folk.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 16, 2006 9:33 AM


Posted by: oj at January 16, 2006 9:42 AM

oj; "Negro" is the word MLK used in the Birmingham Jail letter in writing about the "Negro middle class."

Some people, when writing in reference to a text, follow the language of the text. This may be done for clarity, or it may be done to emphasize context or to capture a shade of meaning.

To write this way sometimes requires the courage to disregard the risk of being accused of political insensitivity.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 16, 2006 10:38 AM

Mike M - That passage caught my eye, too.

Posted by: Chris B at January 16, 2006 10:47 AM

People write that way because it allows them cover for offensive language that they still prefer.

Posted by: oj at January 16, 2006 10:58 AM


Sadly I think that's quite wrong. By the end of his life King had made it quite clear that he would have been content to have the poor become completely dependent on the state so long as they could depend on it.

Posted by: oj at January 16, 2006 11:20 AM

Perry: If you were a slave, your children could only be slaves. If you are poor, you can easily arrange things so that your children are not poor. That many people don't do so is no answer to the fact that they can do so.

Also, let's not get too carried away. American blacks, though disproportionately poor, mostly live above the poverty line. The poor, though disproportionately black, are mostly white. The poorest blacks are those whose ancestors were slaves and thus have the greatest right to succor from their fellow Americans; black immigrants from the Caribbean and, in particular, Africa tend to have typical American immigrant experiences.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 16, 2006 3:15 PM

David, Of course you're right on all points, but please explain what you mean by "succor." Isn't it succor that has made them permanently enslaved and dependent on welfare.

Posted by: erp at January 16, 2006 3:40 PM

That's one of the things we've been trying to work out for the last 40 years. I think, and I assume most of us think, that the answer lies in some form of "tough love." But if we're wrong and, hard as it is to imagine, slavery leaves the descendents of slaves unable to survive without state aid for another 100 years, won't we supply it?

Posted by: David Cohen at January 16, 2006 6:50 PM


Yes, King may have thought that way at the end of his life but given a chance to see how it all turned out he would admit he was wrong and give up his silly flirtation with socialism. He was no socialist, infact really a conservative and would despise the Sharptons, Jacksons and the Farakans of today.

Posted by: Perry at January 17, 2006 12:26 AM


You can't change the scenario in my hypothetical situation because the above is how I defined it. Your choice is to live as an early American slave or live in a modern public housing project. Getting out of either is not an option.

I personally would choose the slavery for me as well as for my children for the reason that I think the human condition of being a slave is a better one. Slaves work, people in public housing projects don't. Therefore slaves have dignity; public housing members have drugs and dysfunction. Their psychological burden is greater and so is their misery. Why would I want my children to live in that?

And I don't think I am carried away. People arenít poor simply because they have no money, they are poor because they are lazy, uneducated, drug addicted, entitled lofers. Percentages mask the problem. If you look at absolute numbers, we have gotten worse regardless of many blacks have now reaching the middle class.

Finally, slavery in the Caribbean was brutal not at all like slavery in the states. The fact that immigrants from there can come here and prosper indicates the current poor state of black America is not due to 400 years of racism, but rather 40+ years of liberalism. - Perry

Posted by: Perry at January 17, 2006 1:08 AM

Many poor people are surely such because "they are lazy, uneducated, drug addicted, entitled loafers", but ill-chance plays a role for many, and socialization is a big factor.

Many undereducated, under-employed people would be willing and capable of holding better jobs, but they don't know where to look, how to act, or how to dress to get those jobs, and even if they could get those jobs, there'd be transportation issues, daycare issues...

Climbing out of poverty can be done, as I well know, but it takes time, effort, and often a sherpa.

Society IS, in fact, to blame for a lot of people being poor, despite the fact that there are surely a lot of self-destructive behaviors going on in the underclass.
We can't end poverty, but we could to better at reducing it.
It's not all the fault of poor people that they are, and remain, poor.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2006 3:50 AM


He was in fact a rather standard issue socialist as far as anyone can tell. Who else from the mainstream Democratic Left changed their mind? Anyone?

Posted by: oj at January 17, 2006 7:19 AM


As your master I choose to sell off your childrenm and my wife just decided we had to sell your wife because I got jiggy with her. Still want to be a slave?

Posted by: oj at January 17, 2006 7:26 AM

Oj wrote;

"He was in fact a rather standard issue socialist"

No he wasn't. How many socialists do you know that are deeply religious? This taken from the City journal article you posted.

"King believed in self-help because he grew up in a deeply religious environment that nourished it." and "Daddy King relied on a muscular work ethic, spartan self-discipline, and a devotion to education to propel himself into the black middle class." ďKingís message of personal responsibility and individual and communal striving offers a time-tested recipe for getting ahead"

Oj, MLK went on and on about personal responsibility almost all his adult life. It wasn't until late he started hitting the big gov drum. Read the whole article you posted, King was a conservative who would be have truly reviled the black, white, and brown underclass America of today.


Posted by: Perry at January 17, 2006 8:30 AM

Nearly all liberal clergy were socialists in the 60s and 70s. The social gospel leads easily to socialism.


Posted by: oj at January 17, 2006 8:33 AM


Slaves weren't allowed to marry but that is besides the point as both senarios have show stopping realities tied to them. What would you want to be, a drug addicted punk thug who hates the world and understands little, or a worker in a field. I know what I would choose

The bottom line is that the social pathologies are so great living in modern public housing that for the reason of self dignity, I would choose slavery. You may choose otherwise but I think many people thoughtfully weighing the options would choose the slavery.

The point in all this is to agree with one of the orginal commentors in that- the underclass has not come very far at all. I think it is worse as you can now add heavy social pathologies onto the condition of being plain old poor. And it has spread across skin color to include as huge section of the entire population.

Posted by: Perry at January 17, 2006 8:45 AM


You are ducking the obvious and ignoring a ton of public writing and discourse by King. His standard message is the one Bill Cosby is giving, not Jackson's.

I am not saying he didn't claim to be a socialist as he obviously did but that he didn't come to it until late and his values never matched that of a socialist. I think he would feel that balck america has made little progress that couldn't have been made with just the dismantling of jim crow. He would see that the socialism has made things worse for black people and disavow it.

Posted by: Perry at January 17, 2006 8:53 AM

The punk has a choice.

Posted by: oj at January 17, 2006 10:41 AM

The obvious is what he said and did--he said government should take care of the poor by transferring wealth to them and tried getting government to do so.

Posted by: oj at January 17, 2006 10:45 AM

and there is no good reason for them to take any other choice other than the one almost all end up taking. The small thread of liberty does not justify the huge loss of dignity the socialism mandates. It has been a failure and even King would agree, his late life socialism advocacy aside.

I am not sure what you are even arguing? Read Theodore Dalrymple. As a society we have gone backwards in the fight against poverty as poverty now means huge social dysfunction.

Posted by: Perry at January 17, 2006 11:44 AM


Except that those who live in poverty are reasonably wealthy. That would have been good enough for King as it is for the rest of the Left.

Posted by: oj at January 17, 2006 12:02 PM

Ok Oj,

Now we have a clear difference of opinion.

King may have advocated socialism because he thought it would work and make people whole but his defintion of poverty, I donot beleive, would have stopped with looking who is above and below a poverty line. He was a very moral guy who understood dignity. I hope given the chance he would eschew the moral poverty prevelanet now.

Posted by: Perry at January 17, 2006 12:40 PM

No one else on the Left has.

Posted by: oj at January 17, 2006 1:47 PM

Perry: You can discuss whatever you want, and I will too.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 17, 2006 3:14 PM