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Letter from a Birmingham Jail

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  • brian.ions
    Letter from a Birmingham Jail 16 April 1963 My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 4, 2008
      Letter from a Birmingham Jail
      16 April 1963

      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.

      I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have
      been influenced by the view which argues against "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
      affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the
      Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff,
      educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months
      ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked 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 promise. So
      I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited
      here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

      But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just
      as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and
      carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their
      home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and
      carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman
      world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own
      home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call
      for aid.

      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
      States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

      You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your
      statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the
      conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of
      you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social
      analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with
      underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking
      place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's
      white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

      In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the
      facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self
      purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in
      Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice
      engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly
      segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is
      widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the
      courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and
      churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are
      the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions,
      Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter
      consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

      Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of
      Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations,
      certain promises were made by the merchants--for example, to remove the
      stores' humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the
      Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian
      Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations.
      As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of
      a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others
      remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted,
      and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no
      alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would
      present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the
      conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the
      difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self
      purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we
      repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without
      retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to
      schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that
      except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year.
      Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by
      product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to
      bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

      Then it occurred to us that Birmingham's mayoral election was coming up
      in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after
      election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety,
      Eugene "Bull" Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we
      decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that
      the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many
      others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured
      postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we
      felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

      You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth?
      Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for
      negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action.
      Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a
      tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is
      forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it
      can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of
      the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I
      must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have
      earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive,
      nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt
      that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that
      individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the
      unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must
      we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in
      society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and
      racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The
      purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis
      packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore
      concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved
      Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue
      rather than dialogue.

      One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and
      my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked:
      "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only
      answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham
      administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before
      it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of
      Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While
      Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both
      segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope
      that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of
      massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without
      pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you
      that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined
      legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that
      privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
      Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust
      posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be
      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 yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in
      the view 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 piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost
      always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished
      jurists, 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 gaining political independence, but 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." 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 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; 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 tears welling up in her eyes
      when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see
      ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental
      sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an
      unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an
      answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white
      people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county
      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" and "colored"; 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, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never
      quite knowing what to expect next, and are 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 the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs,
      you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You
      express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This
      is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to
      obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the
      public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us
      consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate
      breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that
      there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to
      advocate obeying just laws. 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."

      Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine
      whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that
      squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code
      that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St.
      Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in
      eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is
      just. 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. Segregation, to use the
      terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I
      it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating
      persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only
      politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally
      wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not
      segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his
      awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge
      men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally
      right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they
      are morally wrong.

      Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An
      unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a
      minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is
      difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a
      majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow
      itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A
      law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of
      being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the
      law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that
      state's segregation laws was 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?

      Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For
      instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit.
      Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a
      permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is
      used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment
      privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

      I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In
      no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid
      segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law
      must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the
      penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience
      tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of
      imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its
      injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

      Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience.
      It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and
      Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher
      moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early
      Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating
      pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the
      Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because
      Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea
      Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

      We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was
      "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was
      "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's
      Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I
      would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a
      Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith
      are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's
      antireligious laws.

      I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish
      brothers. First, I must confess that over the past 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 his
      stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler 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 cannot
      agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically
      believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives
      by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to
      wait for 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.

      I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order
      exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in
      this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the
      flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would
      understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of
      the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro
      passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive
      peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human
      personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not
      the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden
      tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can
      be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as
      it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural
      medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the
      tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the
      air of national opinion before it can be cured.

      In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful,
      must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a
      logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his
      possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this
      like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and
      his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided
      populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like
      condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing
      devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must
      come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it
      is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic
      constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence.
      Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped
      that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in
      relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from
      a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the
      colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible
      that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity
      almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of
      Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic
      misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there
      is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all
      ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either
      destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of
      ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of
      good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the
      hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling
      silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of
      inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to
      be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes
      an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively,
      in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the
      time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending
      national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to
      lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the
      solid rock of human dignity.

      You speak 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 began 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 in part of Negroes who, as a result
      of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense
      of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of
      a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and
      economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation,
      have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force
      is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to
      advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist
      groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best
      known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's
      frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this
      movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have
      absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the
      white man is an incorrigible "devil."

      I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need
      emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and
      despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of
      love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the
      influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral
      part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many
      streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I
      am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble
      rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent
      direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts,
      millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace
      and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would
      inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

      Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for
      freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to
      the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright
      of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be
      gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the
      Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and
      yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United
      States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised
      land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has
      engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public
      demonstrations are taking place. 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. So I have
      not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have
      tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled
      into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this
      approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially
      disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to
      think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from
      the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies,
      bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for
      them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an
      extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and
      righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist
      for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord
      Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do
      otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the
      end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham
      Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And
      Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men
      are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be
      extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be
      extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the
      preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that
      dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never
      forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of
      extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their
      environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth
      and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South,
      the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

      I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was
      too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have
      realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep
      groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer
      have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong,
      persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of
      our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social
      revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in
      quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill,
      Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah
      Patton Boyle--have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic
      terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South.
      They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the
      abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger-lovers."
      Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have
      recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful
      "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take
      note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly
      disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there
      are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of
      you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you,
      Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in
      welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I
      commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill
      College several years ago.

      But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I
      have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of
      those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the
      church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church;
      who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual
      blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life
      shall lengthen.

      When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in
      Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by
      the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of
      the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been
      outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and
      misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious
      than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing
      security of stained glass windows.

      In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that
      the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice
      of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel
      through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had
      hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been

      I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their
      worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the
      law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this
      decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is
      your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the
      Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and 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 many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the
      gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit
      themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange,
      un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and
      the secular.

      I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all
      the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn
      mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their
      lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines
      of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found
      myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
      Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with
      words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor
      Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their
      voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to
      rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of
      creative protest?"

      Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have
      wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have
      been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is
      not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in
      the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great
      grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But,
      oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect
      and through fear of being nonconformists.

      There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the
      early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they
      believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that
      recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a
      thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early
      Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and
      immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of
      the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in
      the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God
      rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were
      too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort
      and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and
      gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the
      contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain
      sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being
      disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the
      average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even
      vocal--sanction of things as they are.

      But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's
      church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it
      will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be
      dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth
      century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the
      church has turned into outright disgust.

      Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too
      inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?
      Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church
      within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But
      again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of
      organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of
      conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.
      They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of
      Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South
      on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some
      have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their
      bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that
      right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been
      the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in
      these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark
      mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the
      challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to
      the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear
      about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are
      at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in
      Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is
      freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up
      with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were
      here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the
      Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here.
      For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country
      without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their
      masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and
      yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.
      If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the
      opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because
      the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are
      embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to
      mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me
      profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping
      "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly
      commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth
      into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly
      commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane
      treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them
      push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see
      them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe
      them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we
      wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of
      the Birmingham police department.

      It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in
      handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves
      rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the
      evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently
      preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure
      as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use
      immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is
      just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve
      immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather
      nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but
      they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral
      end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation
      is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

      I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and 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. 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, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one
      who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at
      rest." They will be the young high school and college students, the
      young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, 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.

      Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too
      long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have
      been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but
      what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than
      write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

      If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and
      indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have
      said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a
      patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I
      beg God to forgive me.

      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 their scintillating beauty.

      Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
      Martin Luther King, Jr.
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