Fifty years ago this month Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., for taking part in civil rights demonstrations.
While incarcerated he wrote a letter to a group of white clergymen who had publicly criticized the demonstrations as “unwise and untimely.” King labored long over the letter, at first scribbling his words in the margins of a newspaper, later writing on paper smuggled in by his lawyer. When finished, it ran to about 5,000 words — more essay than epistle.
The “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” as it became known, endures as a key document of the civil rights movement. In responding to the issues raised by the clergymen, King gave expression to the basic themes of his mission — the evil of segregation, the quest for justice, the legitimacy of his tactic of nonviolent direct action — and to his sense of urgency, his conviction that his people had waited long enough, that the time to move was now.
The white clergymen, Birmingham residents all, had objected to the presence of “outsiders” in the ranks of the demonstrators. (King, of course, was from Atlanta, and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was headquartered there).
King explained that he had come to Birmingham because he had been invited by the local branch of the SCLC. But there was a more profound reason for his presence in the city: he was in Birmingham, he wrote, because “injustice is here.” Though Atlanta was his home, he could not ignore the plight of the people in Birmingham because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Rather than demonstrations, the clergymen had pressed for negotiations, to which only Birmingham residents, “white and Negro,” would be party. They claimed that the demonstrations, “however technically peaceful,” had in fact sparked violence and rage.
King understood this, correctly, as a criticism of nonviolent direct action, and he attempted to clarify why he had turned to this tactic and what it was intended to accomplish.