King (1963). Letter From A Birmingham Jail.

King, M. L., Jr. (1997). Letter from Birmingham Jail. In N. Desmarais & J. H. McGovern (Eds.), Essential documents in American history. Great Neck Publishing.

King, M. L., Jr. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. The Christian Century, 767–773. (

King, M. L., Jr. (1963, April 16). Letter From A Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from

NOTE: Excerpts here are from an edited version, provided by EBSCOhost, of King’s letter. The EBSCOhost database provides bare particulars about its edition of the letter: there are no page numbers nor is any source or date indicated of its version of the letter. Best guess, per OCLC WorldCat, appears to be a database or ebook and is the first reference noted above (Essential documents in American history).

The second reference above presents a version with alternate edits (The Christian Century). The third reference is to an early draft of King’s letter (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute).

In the excerpts below, paragraph numbers indicate location in the EBSCOhost version (Essential documents in American History) while page numbers indicate the location of the equivalent but not necessarily identical passage in the draft letter (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute).

The draft version, The Christian Century edition, and the EBSCOhost editions are each different and vary to some degree from each other.

[Cascades of injustice …]

“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.” (¶4, p 2)

[Steps for nonviolent action …]

“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” (¶6, p 2)

[Describing self-purification …]

“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?'” (¶8, p 3)

[Protest to create (or highlight) crisis and rouse tensions in order to compel dialogue …]

“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.” (¶10, p 4)

[Groups tend to be more immoral than individuals …]

“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.” (¶12, p 5)

[Freedom must be demanded …]

“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.” (¶13, p 5)

[Describing the vicious treatment of African Americans …]

“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 …” (¶14, p 6-7)

[Kinds of laws and their morality …]

“… 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.'” (¶15, p 7)

[Breaking the law …]

“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.” (¶20, p 9)

[Legality defined by the regime …]

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ …. It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” (¶22, p 9)

[Moderates are themselves dangerous …]

“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.'” (¶23, p 9-10)

[Tension exists, protest exposes it …]

“… 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.” (¶24, p 10)

[The role of time …]

“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. … We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” (¶26, p 11A)

[Choosing to be an extremist …]

“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 extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” (¶31, p 13)

[Dismissal of social issues by religious leaders …]

“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.'” (¶37, p 15)

[Frustration with people of faith …]

“Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices …” (¶38, p 15)

Selected References

  • Niebuhr, K. P. R. (1960). Moral man and immoral society: a study in ethics and politics. New York: Scribner.
  • St. Augustine …
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