Letter from Birmingham Jail

Explaining Why The Birmingham and Other Demonstrations are Necessary

Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the most tense moments of the Birmingham Alabama racial crisis, eight of the city's clergymen prepared a public statement which called the demonstrations "unwise and untimely", and questioned the presence of "outsiders". The vexing questions raised in the public statement are being asked by people who live far away from Birmingham: Jackson, Mississippi; and Albany, Georgia. While in the city jail, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (the chief "outsider") wrote a lengthy and considered reply to that statement. His response offers one of the clearest written extant answers to the questions, at the same time that it assesses candidly the present position of Negroes on the subject of nonviolence. Important and new developments in the field of racial integration are presaged in this timely and unusual letter, generous exceprts from which appear in the following pages.-The Editors.

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 goodwill, 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 eighty-five affiliate organizations all across the South--one being the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Whenever necessary and possible we share staff, education and financial resources with our affiliates. 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, and when the hour came we lived up to our promises. So I am here, along with several members of my staff, because we were invited here. I am here because I have basic organizational ties here.

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Moreover.......I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial, "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United Staes can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no alternative.

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