Letter From Birmingham Jail – History for the Present


Martin Luther King, Jr. at civil rights march on Washington DC.

Martin Luther King, Jr. at civil rights march on Washington DC.



Martin Luther King, Jr. after arrest in Birmingham.

Martin Luther King, Jr. after arrest in Birmingham.



The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, dwarfing the rate of nearly every other nation…

Such broad statistics mask the racial disparity that pervades the U.S. criminal justice system. Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males… 

If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime,

— Report of the Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee


Today we recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a National Day of Service. We are reminded to serve our communities, that as human beings we are all interdependent , and to work for the greater good…

But are we?

The greater good is equality is it not?

The greater good is the belief that one life does not matter more than another – that we are here to live with and for each other, right?

I was prompted by someone I admire to re-read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail – his open letter to fellow clergymen.

So many of his words are frighteningly relevant today.

His words strike me again and again:


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.



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.

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 find the above sentiments to be particularly true when I think about the Black Lives Matter movement today. There is tension. There should be tension. I should be uncomfortable. You should be uncomfortable with systemic racism… with racial disparity… with the way things are right now -right in front of us. Feel very uncomfortable. It is a crisis.


…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 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”…


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.


This next part feels so incredibly prophetic to me. He is right. He was right then… and he is right now:


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…


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.


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.



How have we grown? How have we changed? Not only in law, but in our hearts?

Are you silent?


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.


It is 2016.

How could Martin Luther King, Jr. have known that in 53 years, that “not too distant tomorrow” still would not have come.

Go be of service, my friends.

The greater good needs you.


Letter from Birmingham Jail quote




You can read the entire letter in it’s original form here.

jenni chiu sig



One response to “Letter From Birmingham Jail – History for the Present”

  1. Morgan says:

    Wow, what an interesting piece of history! I really like the way this was written. Very nicely done! Thanks so much for sharing this!

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