This Day in the Law
April 16

Martin Luther King Writes Letter From a Birmingham Jail (1963)

On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote a letter from the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama where he had been arrested for his non-violent protest against racial segregation laws. King wrote his letter largely in response to a letter he received from some prominent Alabama clergymen urging King to refrain from his non-violent protests.

The Alabama clergymen comprised of eight white men, including Methodist and Baptist bishops. They titled their letter to King as "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense," and they stated that all conflicts should be resolved through the court system rather than through demonstrations. In other words, the clergymen argued that King’s fight for equality should not be fought on the streets but should be left for the courts to decide.

King began his letter by saying:
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
From these opening words, King responded that without nonviolent protests against social injustices, true civil rights would never be achieved. King stated that one cannot just wait for social injustices to change. Instead, one must take direct non-violent action to create positive change. As King stated, "This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never,'" and "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

The Letter From a Birmingham Jail drafted by King on this day April 16, 1963 was published in the Birmingham Newspaper. It also included some of King’s most memorable insights and statements into his vision of non-violent demonstrations to create position change. Some of these famous statements include:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
[J]ustice too long delayed is justice denied. – quoted from William E. Gladstone
We know through painful experiences that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.
One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. 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'.
In the end, King’s ideas proved successful and laws were changed to end many of the social injustices in the South and around other areas of the U.S.